P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

The Boss (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

My expectations may have been a little too high for The Boss. I geeked out pretty hard last year when I finally caught up with Melissa McCarthy’s first feature film team-up with her husband Ben Falcone, Tammy, which I called in my review “the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011.” That’s a lot for a sophomore follow-up to live up to, so it was unlikely that I was ever going to enjoy the McCarthy-Falcone production The Boss quite as much as I did Tammy. It’s a funny, serviceable, occasionally absurd comedy that McCarthy & Falcone obviously had a great time bringing to the screen, but it’s difficult to get too excited about the film because I’ve already seen them do so much better. There’s a darkness & go-for-broke inanity to Tammy that I feel is somewhat lacking in the much more restrained The Boss and the resulting film feels a little generic in its absence.

Part of the problem might be that The Boss takes a little too long to get rolling. The titular pure id monster Tammy is entirely recognizable as a complete character almost as soon as she’s introduced. The Boss‘s Michelle Darnell (a character McCarthy developed many years back in The Groundlings), on the other hand, requires a little groundwork. A product of group homes & orphanages, Darnell is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps cliche that became a wealthy, deeply strange cocktail of Nancy Grace, Paula Dean, Martha Stewart and any self-motivation guru you could think of who would write a book titled Money Talks Bullshit Walks through sheer gumption & will. You have to wait for her to get to the top, get knocked off her throne (by some well-deserved insider trading charges), and then find a second life as an entrepreneur helming a Girl Scouts knockoff that sells treats for profits instead of charity (in blatant violation of child labor laws) before the film really gets rolling. There’s a good fifteen, twenty minutes of labored exposition required to get Darnell in full swing and once she gets there the quiet moments between her sadistically self-absorbed, petty line of dark humor soften the film’s punch & pace more than I’d like. There’s a movie just as subversively dark & self-deprecating as Tammy hiding somewhere in The Boss, but it’s noticeably bogged down & muddled in a way its predecessor wasn’t.

McCarthy is still funny here whenever she’s allowed fully misbehave & indulge in oversexed, money-obsessed misanthropy. The Boss also has a great back-up crew of small role supporting actors in Peter Dinklage, Cecily Strong, Kathy Bates, Kristen Schaal, and Neptune, Caifornia’s own Kristen Bell. Reno 911‘s Cedric Yardbrough has a wonderfully absurd, one-note bit role as a surreally agreeable yes-man named Tito that nearly steals the show, but isn’t given enough screen time to fully commit (there’s a moment at the climax where I was pretty bummed that Tito didn’t swoop back in on a helicopter to save the day despite the fact that it would’ve made very little sense narratively). Besides the talent on deck, The Boss also has a great central message about the value of camaraderie among women & the unexpected ways make-shift families can form around even the most undeserving. I like it okay as a generic comedy with a talented lead & a wickedly petty mean streak, but Tammy felt like a much more special moment in McCarthy’s career (not that it did any better with mainstream outlets & audiences critically-speaking). I like to think that this film was wish-fulfillment for McCarthy & Falcone, who obviously were proud to bring Darnell to such a wide audience, but that they have much more subversive, sadistic comedy work still ahead of them. I’ve seen them pull it off before.

-Brandon Ledet