It would be easy to dismiss PS I Love You, about the agonies visited on a young married couple, as the big-screen equivalent of a paperback romance. Certainly the refined critical mind understands that this is the kind of artful emotion machine that the movies have been making since the very first tear slid down an actress' face, the droplet seen - and experienced - around the world by audiences who answered that bead of dew with a grateful flood of their own.
Movies that make you bawl were sometimes called five-hankie weepies, a sneery label calculated to insult the film and the teary filmgoer alike. There aren't a lot of these made anymore in America, mainly because most of our movies now are about men and not women. Even so, there are plenty of covert male weepies, films that transform emotions into actions, including acts of violence. Michael Clayton is a male weepy, as is American Gangster, which turns a duel between tough guys into a veritable drum circle of two. PS I Love You is more obviously a weepy, but because it leavens sorrow with laughter, it probably requires no more than three hankies. I wouldn't know: I just used the back of my hand.
The film stars Hilary Swank, a square-jawed beauty at once angular and bosomy, vaguely masculine and unequivocally feminine, whose greatest roles - in Boys Don't Cry and in particular Million Dollar Baby - have exploited her ambiguous physicality to enormous advantage. Like some of the greatest sob sisters of the big screen - think of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford - she has a kind of working-class toughness bordering on hardness that makes the eventual cracks in her armature all the more effective. Unlike Stanwyck and Crawford, though, Swank can come across as intensely, almost desperately eager to please, which invests her with tremulous pathos or makes you feel embarrassed on her behalf. Stanwyck would have booted her offscreen. Crawford would have eaten her for breakfast.
Perhaps because of this masculine-feminine ambiguity, Swank has not often been cast as a romantic foil opposite men. She wooed another woman beautifully in Boys Don't Cry, and in Million Dollar Baby played the adoring daughter to a surrogate father, a symbolic romance conducted principally inside the confines of a boxing ring. One reason she was so good in Brian De Palma's convoluted noir The Black Dahlia, in which she crept around like poison ivy, is that her performance as a femme fatale is set inside quotation marks. She didn't register as a toxically dangerous woman but as an idea of that irresistible sexist cliche. She filled out her character's snug gown as a drag queen would.
PS I Love You looks squeaky clean and utterly straight and very much removed from the shadow worlds in which Swank has done her best work. Yet as directed by Richard LaGravenese, who shares screenwriting credit with Steven Rogers, it has a curious morbid quality. Swank plays Holly Kennedy, a 29-year-old New Yorker who, shortly after the story takes off, becomes a widow. Her husband, Gerry (Gerard Butler), however, doesn't fully disappear. Instead he visibly lingers in her apartment - he seems less like a ghost than like a manifestation of mad grief - and in the letters he left behind. These letters are full of bossy instructions for Holly on how to grieve and live. They are, in essence, a primer on how to be a widow.
LaGravenese, who last directed Swank in the sympathetic drama Freedom Writers, is in sync with his star from the get-go. He puts her in the middle of the frame and in a succession of mostly flattering outfits, and smartly surrounds her with well-ripened second bananas, notably Kathy Bates, as Holly's protective mother, and Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon, as her best friends. Harry Connick Jr swings in and out as a possible love interest, as does the temperature-raiser Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a television actor (Grey's Anatomy, Weeds) who bears a striking physical resemblance to Javier Bardem. Morgan's appearance in PS I Love You finishes off Butler (last seen slaughtering Persians in 300) far more effectively than does Gerry's terminal illness.
PS I Love You won't win any awards. It's preposterous in big and small matters, and there are several cringe-worthy set pieces, some involving Butler and a guitar. The film is not a beautiful object or a memorable cultural one, and yet it charms, however awkwardly. Swank's ardent sincerity and naked emotionalism dovetail nicely with LaGravenese's melodramatic excesses: Together director and star create a swell of feeling that helps blunt your reservations about being played as an easy mark even if that's exactly what you are.