As hopelessly contrived and predictable as "P.S. I Love You" is, it's still a charming, touching romantic comedy. The most surprising thing about it is Hilary Swank, whose resume of serious films has made a humorous role seem an unlikely choice. She makes full use of her softer, sillier side, playing a character that's loveable and irritating at the same time. I say this in spite of the fact that serious undertones run through the film, as they always do in romantic comedies; after losing her husband to cancer, Swank's character spends the rest of the film trying to find herself (for lack of a non-clichéd term). The twist is that her husband is posthumously guiding her with a series of handwritten letters, all of which were so strategically located that only a well-executed plan could see it through. A sweet but nonetheless baffling idea: How could a terminally ill man carry off something this elaborate in such a short period of time?
Never mind--I was still moved by the light-hearted sentimentality of the story, so I have to give credit where credit is due. The film opens in wintertime New York City with Holly Kennedy (Swank) storming home, absolutely furious. Right behind her is her Irish husband, Jerry (Gerard Butler), who knows he's said something to offend Holly but doesn't know what. It isn't until they enter their apartment that they really let loose: Holly is offended because Jerry commented on her waiting to have children. Now back in their apartment, everything he says gets misconstrued in some way, and a full-blown fight ensues. It isn't long before they make up, however, and by the time they do, Jerry promises his wife that he isn't going anywhere, despite their financial troubles, despite their current job situations. After nine years, he still loves her. He'll always love her, no matter what.
Naturally, the very next scene takes place at his memorial service. The audience is thankfully spared the unnecessary melodrama of his failing health and eventual death; no such scenes are included in this film. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus on what happens afterwards with Holly, who--as you might have guessed--is so grief-stricken that she shuts herself off and lets herself go. It isn't until her thirtieth birthday that things begin to change; as her worried family and friends sit by her side, a birthday cake is delivered with a mini cassette recorder taped to the inside of the box. Holly presses the Play button and hears Jerry's voice explaining that he wrote her a series of letters as he was dying. Holly will receive them all over a period of time, and each one will instruct her to do something bold and adventurous. Basically, his words will push her into living her life without focusing so much on his death.
The rest of the film is all about Holly fulfilling her husband's last requests, from singing in a karaoke bar to meeting his parents back in his native Ireland (where--you guessed it--another letter waits). Her friends and family offer as much support as they can, all while engaged in their own minor subplots. Her best friend, Denise (Lisa Kudrow), is desperate to find Mr. Right, so desperate that she openly asks potential dates about their relationship status, their financial status, and their sexual orientation. Holly's mother, Patricia (Kathy Bates), loves her daughter but has trouble accepting Jerry's postmortem plan. She was never fully accepting of him to begin with; he and Holly married at young ages, meaning that a lot could have gone wrong. And Patricia definitely understands the pain of losing a husband (albeit under much different circumstances).
The most interesting side character is Daniel (Harry Connick, Jr.), who works for Holly's mother at a local bar. He claims to have a syndrome: his social filter is defective, meaning he'll say anything to anyone at anytime. He openly tells Holly that she's hot, that she's a terrible singer, and that he's getting sick of hearing about Jerry all the time. Part of the truth is obvious--he has feelings for Holly. The rest of the truth is not so clear-cut--he, too, has been deeply wounded by a past relationship. From this alone, the two are emotional matches. That doesn't necessarily mean that they would work as a couple, especially with the inclusion of William (Jeffery Dean Morgan), the man Holly meets on her trip to Ireland. So the question is raised: Will Holly and Daniel find romance in the midst of tragedy? Will Holly allow herself to love again, or even to let her life go in a new direction?
As fresh and exciting as I'm making this sound, the reality is that "P.S. I Love You" is a fairly routine story of love, loss, and emotional rebirth. That doesn't make it a bad movie by any means; in all honesty, I found it quite satisfying. Most of this has to do with Hilary Swank, who impressed me with her ability to transcend the heavy-handed, solemn movie roles she's known for. But the rest of the cast does a decent job, as well, doing justice to a well-established cinematic formula. I also appreciated the letter-writing plot point, simply because it was cleverly (if strangely) executed. Some may feel that Jerry's letter writing is a method of control, but do you honestly think that a romantic comedy would go that far? It's not control so much as it's a way to nudge Holly in the right direction--I believe that, were it not for his letters, she would mourn the rest of her life. And is it any coincidence that he ends every letter with the film's title?