It's a fact of modern movie watching: as bland storytelling becomes more and more ascendant, you have to be on the lookout for clichés. And most of the time, we remember that -- and occasionally lose sight of the fact that there really are no cliché plots, just cliché execution of the moments within those plots. I can't think of a better example of that fact than the new big-budget tear-jerker P.S. I Love You, starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler as a young couple torn apart by untimely death. As P.S. I Love You opens, we witness young married couple Holly (Swank) and Gerry (Butler) fussing, feuding and fighting before they kiss and make up; then, after the credits, we jump ahead to ... Butler's wake. And while that leap is a little brusque, the real indicator of the movie we're in for comes soon after. A priest introduces the playing of Gerry's favorite song, and the opening chords of the Pogues's "Fairytale of New York" fill the air ... and then the song jumps ahead several bars, skips selectively through the verses, and then leaps to the chorus. Really? The music Jerry wanted played at his wake was a clumsily-edited version of a song, cut for no other reason than to move the movie forward faster? This is not playing a character's favorite song; this is cheap manipulation, designed to engage your feelings as swiftly and cheaply as the filmmakers can. And so goes the movie.

I have no objection to a film trying to warm my heart; what I object to is a film trying to microwave it. P.S. I Love You barrages us with high-frequency waves of cheap sentiment, lazy writing, absolute fabrication and only-in-the-movies nonsense, a purely mechanical process designed to make us feel sadness as swiftly as possible, imbuing the sort of emotional heat that, like the hot patches in a microwaved burrito, doesn't really spread through the entire film or endure beyond a few seconds. And I know it's unfair to compare one film to another, but P.S. I Love You is so clumsy that I found myself thinking of far better films about terminal illness (My Life Without Me) or the unexpected loss of a loved one (Truly, Madly, Deeply) not immediately after but, in fact, during the film's agonizingly long dead spots and bland, off-the-rack montages.
As P.S. I Love You unfolds, we watch Holly shattered by the loss of Gerry -- and then surprised to find that Gerry has left her a series of letters and messages, written before his demise, so as to guide her from the beyond through this rough time. And that's not the problem with P.S. I Love You -- My Life Without Me, starring Sarah Polley, gets real and rich drama out of the same idea, as Polley's terminally ill wife and mother writes letters and tapes video messages for her girls celebrating every birthday they'll have (and she'll miss) until they're 18. We also see Swank float in and out of reveries where Butler's back in her life. And again, the same thing happens in the superior Truly, Madly, Deeply, as Julie Stevenson is visited by deceased love Alan Rickman. The problems in P.S. I Love You come as every scene chooses the path of least resistance and least intelligence.

As Holly stops working for a year after Gerry's death -- including taking a Gerry-arranged, fully-paid trip to Ireland -- I had to ask where the money to afford all this was coming from. Maybe it was a life insurance payout, or support from family and friends; if the film had answered that question with a little as one line of dialogue, I wouldn't have been scratching my head over the film's tenuous relationship to capitalist reality at moments when I was supposed to be engaged by the story. And when Holly, months after Gerry's passing, decides to have a fling with William (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), their post-coital realization (which I won't spoil) after isn't touching or funny or human; instead, the audience is left aghast at how unreal it is that the facts we've just seen revealed, or the reasonable questions that might have helped the characters fill in the facts we've just seen develop, didn't come up in any conversation in the day-and-a-half before the two actually jumped into bed. We're not left laughing or touched by the funny-sad nature of life; instead, we're left slack-jawed, asking who, exactly, these people are, and why they and their scenes must be so blatantly phony and deliberately unlike the way real human beings would talk.

Considering that director and credited writer Richard LaGravenese has handled what could have been cliché-laden material far more ably in Freedom Writers and the criminally overlooked Living Out Loud, perhaps some of the blame should go to screenwriter Steven Rogers, whose resume also includes the bland and banal Stepmom, another terminal-illness film that trades in cheap sentiment instead of real drama. As for the leads, Butler's Gerry is a caricature -- shallow and thin and poorly-written. Swank is a capable actress, but material like this is not her forte; watching Swank try to do light comedy is like watching my cat try to do Sudoku, and this film demonstrates that firmly. LaGravenes also doesn't get much out of supporting actresses Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow -- although a scene between Kudrow and Swank in a bridal store is the one moment the film lurches out of familiar territory and shows a spark of life. Harry Connick Jr. --playing a socially-inept possible suitor for Swank -- also livens the film up briefly, or at the very least delivers an unexpected performance in a film where everything else is completely and wholly predictable. I can barely even begin to imagine the death of a spouse, but I don't think you have to have endured that experience to get how flimsy, stale and fake P.S. I Love You actually is.