Over the opening credits of P.S., Laura Linney stares at herself in the bathroom mirror, slowly applying makeup. That's an apt introduction to a character who's clearly spent a lot of time in self-reflection, even though the film doesn't waste much time shocking her out of it. Divorced from a marriage that she and physicist ex-husband Gabriel Byrne agree was "better than most," Linney nears 40 in a job that provides a constant reminder of a youth that's slipping away: An admissions director for Columbia's MFA program, Linney assesses the efforts of young artists. Some presumably remind her of the boyfriend she lost at 17, an aspiring painter killed in a car crash. But none remind her as strongly as Topher Grace (in another performance that confirms he should have a career long after That '70s Show), who shares most of her old lover's name and all of his earnest, dangerously assured personality.
Setting caution aside, Linney (muting the twitchy restlessness that's become her trademark) sets up a sham interview, wears a low-cut dress, and beds her nostalgia-inducing applicant mere hours after meeting him. (Grace's memorable post-coital response—"That was fucking awesome!"—contains a hint of confusion as to whether he's still being interviewed.) Their liaison is the first of several potentially seedy situations that P.S. treats with unexpected sincerity. Adapting a novel by Helen Schulman, director Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger) ignores the setup's sensational possibilities in favor of its emotional possibilities. P.S. has no interest in any mystical coincidence that might have created a sort-of reunion between Linney and her lost love, and it doesn't leer when Byrne confesses a marriage-long sex addiction years after the fact. It treats Linney's man-hungry best friend Marcia Gay Harden as a character with depth and needs, even when she shows up to steal Grace from Linney just as she stole his predecessor. As he did in Roger Dodger, Kidd places his characters in one questionable situation after another, then relies on his actors to convey a vulnerability that makes it impossible to judge their actions.
While not dwelling on plot eventually gets P.S. in trouble during the slack finale, it gives Linney and Grace plenty of room to maneuver. Their characters can never quite parse each other's motives: They push each other apart as often as they draw together, exemplifying the "negative energy" Byrne mentions early on. Whatever their motives, and however tied they are to the past, they come to recognize that they need each other to squeeze out from under the traps of their current lives. The relationship may be brief, and it may not resume a match made in the stars. But it might be love anyway.