Although based on the novel by Cecilia Ahern, "P.S. I Love You" could just as well be a remake of any old romantic drama where tragedy strikes a relationship and the surviving person must learn how to bravely carry on through life without their loved one. This same formula has already been done at least two other times this year, in "Catch and Release
" and "Things We Lost in the Fire
," and this one might be the most cloying of the lot. As written and directed by Richard LaGravenese (2007's "Freedom Writers
") and co-written by Steven Rogers (2001's "Kate & Leopold
"), "P.S. I Love You" is the kind of film where a man dying of a brain tumor finds the time to orchestrate a complex series of letters, requests and philosophical advice to be sent to his wife in the months after he's gone, and where accidentally knocking a belt buckle off of a dresser can alter a person's entire future. When done with just the right touch, this sort of cinematic whimsy can be enchanting. Here, however, it is carried off in such a meandering and illogical fashion that it quickly starts to rub the viewer the wrong way.
When her husband of nine years, Gerry (Gerard Butler), suffers an untimely passing, Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank) sinks into a period of mourning that she wonders if she'll ever be able to overcome. A few weeks later, on her thirtieth birthday, Holly gets an unexpected presenta tape-recorded message from Gerry explaining that he has planned for her to receive a long line of letters from him, each one asking that she take on a requested task without refusal in the hopes that it will help her move on with life and better her place in it. From daring her to face her fear of Karaoke singing to instructing her to buy a nightstand lamp to pre-planning a vacation to his hometown (and the place they met) in Ireland with gal pals Denise (Lisa Kudrow) and Sharon (Gina Gershon), Gerry proves (1) that he unequivocally loved Holly, and (2) that he must have had a lot of time on his hands after his tumor was diagnosed. As a result, Holly slowly begins to live again and starts spending time with two possible male suitors, New York bartender Daniel (Harry Connick Jr.) and Irish musician William (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Even so, she's not sure she's ready to let Gerry go.
"P.S. I Love You" is attractively lensed in Manhattan and Ireland, comes equipped with a fine cast, and surprises by actually improving near the end and, in regard to one particular subplot, pleasingly diverging from what usually happens in these kinds of mainstream romances. Unfortunately, none of these accolades help to bring focus to a tonally confused screenplay that shifts between earnest melodrama and zany comedy without making much of an imprint as either. The pre-credits sequence, depicting a long argument between Holly and Gerry that concludes with them making up and getting all lovey-dovey, is irritating and actually hinders the viewer from caring about their relationship, particularly since that is the only scene Gerry appears in before he dies. From then on, Gerry is only glimpsed as a sort of ghost in the mind of Holly and in the occasional flashback. The latter moments only serve to portray him as smarmy; when Holly and Gerry share their first kiss, he verbally tosses aside her mentions of having a boyfriend and tells her kissing "is a man's business." Give me a break.
Were it not for the ever-reliable Hilary Swank (2007's "The Reaping
") in the lead role of Holly, the film would be even worse off than it is. Swank roots the picture with a gravity, an empathetic soulfulness, and a range of emotions that the problematic storytelling lacks. Stabs at humor, including an on-stage pratfall, some slapstick involving a naked man and the simple task of pouring a drink, and a set-piece where Holly, Denise and Sharon lose their oars and get stranded on a boat in the middle of a lake, are either desperate or just weak. The funniest moment is Holly's spot-on imitation of a singing Judy Garland as she watches her on television, and that is because it seems offbeat enough to be believable and doesn't try so hard. Meanwhile, the premise of Holly getting letter after letter from Gerry and being guided to do things she wouldn't normally do is wasted, with most of them sending her out to do boring things like buy an outfit. Less rambunctious scenes that allow the characters to breathe, as when Holly tearfully sings for a lover she'll never get back, are cursorily more effective.
The rest of the ensemble ably supports Hilary Swank, but, truth be told, she's good enough that she hardly needs them. As Gerry, Gerard Butler (2007's "300
") is ruggedly handsome but can't quite personify the soul mate he is supposed to be for Holly. Kathy Bates (2007's "Fred Claus
"), yet again playing a mom role, gets a bit more material to work with than she recently has. She is wonderful, particularly in a late heart-to-heart talk she has with Holly in Central Park. That scene, along with one that precedes it where Holly finally lets out all of the feelings she has been bottling up, are raw and unforced and touching in a way that the rest of the movie isn't. As best friends Denise and Sharon, the underappreciated Lisa Kudrow (2005's "Happy Endings
") makes the quirky most of her second banana part and Gina Gershon (2001's "Driven
") is notable for essaying a character far less abrasive than the ones she usually plays. The weak link is Harry Connick Jr. (2007's "Bug
"), bland and disposable as Holly's would-be love interest Daniel.
For "P.S. I Love You" to work, the film needed to be more swirlingly romantic than it is for the dramatic parts to take hold, and also more spontaneous in its scene-to-scene narrative. As is, the picture isn't spontaneous enough and falters while trying to find its footing. When it finally does improve, approaching a finish that puts a neat corkscrew in the typical conventional ending, it is ultimately too late to fix all of the tedious clichés bombarding the first hour and a half. Hilary Swank, in all of her frequently breathtaking talent and depth, deserves better than what "P.S. I Love You" has to offer.