There are relatively few ways to strengthen the heart of a book on screen, but plenty of ways to weaken it. p.s., adapted from Helen Schulman’s novel of the same name, introduces us to Louise (Laura Linney), a divorced, 39-year-old Columbia University admissions officer who falls for a graduate school applicant 15 years her junior called F. Scott (That ’70s Show’s outstanding Topher Grace) because he reminds her of a dead high school boyfriend. Louise is tremulous and wistful; F. Scott is winsome and indefatigable; Louise’s old friend (Marcia Gay Harden) is lewd and competitive (and once stole the beau for herself). That the premise works at all on paper — through redemptive sex with F. Scott, Louise gets to close out her emotional account with the dead guy and balance the books with her family, her ex, and her man-trapping friend — is due, in good part, to the novelist’s investment in making her characters openly, casually, and New Yorkishly Jewish, and thus giving them a real cultural grounding for their fancies and neuroses. Without that commitment — scrubbed bland and indistinct of motive, zip code, or worldview, despite the few Columbia U. location shots and the participation of a brand-name cast — the movie version lacks spine. Directed by Dylan Kidd (from a script by Kidd and Schulman) in a lesser follow-up to his sharp, spiny feature debut, Roger Dodger, the movie implodes, with each actor less vivid than he or she ought to be and each character less connected to the others than necessary for such an arbitrary plot.
Deracination does that to people, both real and fictional. Linney reproduces her reliable evocation of underfulfilled, intelligent femininity, and Harden reconstitutes her theatrical flair for women on the verge of a lurking hysteria, but the characterizations feel like professional obligations, not compelling inevitabilities. As for Grace, he’s got plenty of it, and charm, too. But since p.s. doesn’t offer a clue as to who F. Scott is, the appealing young actor is left to rummage for an on-screen personality like a college dude with a bag of laundry he’s got no time to sort out.