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‘P.S.,’ this movie is an intriguing tease

Tale of coincidence, lost love falls a bit short in the end. By John Hartl

Like a low-budget version of “Vertigo,” Dylan Kidd’s “P.S.” examines an ex-lover’s obsessive behavior upon discovering a long-lost love who seemed to be quite dead. It’s not as provocative or as suspenseful as Hitchcock’s classic, though it certainly holds your attention for most of its 105 minutes.

Laura Linney plays the obsessed one: Louise Harrington, a 39-year-old divorcee who works at the admissions office of Columbia University’s School of Fine Arts. Nearly friendless, she hangs out with her ex-husband Peter (Gabriel Byrne) and her best friend from high school, Missy (Marcia Gay Harden), and seems ripe for a midlife crisis.

Is she simply dreaming when an application crosses her desk that appears to have been written by F. Scott Feinstadt, a painter who loved her but died when she was 17? She calls around, searching for evidence that her one-time boyfriend had a cousin or a distant relative (no luck), and finally meets the boy — who turns out to look and talk amazingly like Scott.

Moments after they’ve met, supposedly to discuss his paintings, he’s talking about destiny—and he doesn’t even know yet that she sees him as some kind of reincarnation of the person she should have married. The interview quickly turns into a passionate romp in the sack, followed by a series of dates during which Louise unleashes much of her free-floating hostility.

The mystery boy is played by Topher Grace, who stole most of his scenes in “Traffic” and “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” and continues to impress with his uncanny directness. This time the movie is essentially Linney’s; he’s the love object, forced at one point to listen to her deliver a monologue in which she imagines the worst kind of future for him.

Yet he manages to hold his own, demonstrating that Scott’s passion for Louise is strong enough to overcome her self-destructiveness. Kidd, who helped turn Campbell Scott’s career around with the prize-winning “Roger Dodger,” once again reveals a talent for pushing actors beyond their apparent limits.

Louise’s rants are, of course, a projection. She’s letting loose her anger about her ex-husband’s infidelities, Missy’s catty competitiveness, the deceptions practiced by her junkie brother (Paul Rudd) and the apparent sibling favoritism coming from her mother (Lois Smith), who bakes pies only for her prodigal son.

In spite of the fantasy touches in the storyline, much of “P.S.” is played for real; this is clearly about adults, not swoony teenagers. At the same time, there’s an unreal quality about the dialogue, which sounds as if it might have been lifted directly from the Helen Schulman novel that inspired the script. The characters speak and debate in perfect paragraphs, as if they’d stayed up all night practicing their responses.

As a result, you’re never quite sure how to take it. Even as the story winds down and seems to be reaching the conclusion that this coincidence is, indeed, simply coincidence, you’ll be wondering if Kidd will pull a “Vertigo” and pull the rug out. The movie ends up a bit of a tease, the kind that leaves you either intrigued or exasperated.