RATING |

Hilary Swank owns two best-actress Oscars - for the transgender tragedy Boys Don't Cry, and for Clint Eastwood's distaff boxing pic Million Dollar Baby - and in my mind she deserves them both.

But put her in a frilly dress, set her loose in a chick flick and something goes terribly wrong. And in the grief-drenched romantic comedy P.S. I Love You, things are excruciatingly amiss, start to finish.

In the morose, mopey vein of Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply, but with none of the charm and less of the magic, P.S. I Love You is about a tightly wound New Yorker - Swank's Holly Kennedy - whose glinty-eyed Irishman husband dies just after the opening credits. (Brain tumor, but we've seen enough of the grinning Gerard Butler and his beefy biceps in the opening scene to last a lifetime. And then we see him again and again, in flashbacks and apparitions.)

But here's the gimmick: Before Gerry shuffles off this mortal coil, he pens a series of letters to Holly, advising her how to overcome her loss and get on with life. Call it Dead Man Writing.

The first epistle arrives on Holly's 30th birthday, along with a tape recording. In the weeks, months and seasonal equinoxes to follow, more communiques find their way to Holly: Gerry urges her to get out and party, to date, to travel to Ireland with her gal pals (Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow). The latter jaunt is particularly tough on Holly, because it was there on a road in County Wicklow that she and Gerry first met and fell in love. Gerry's parents still live there, and his old bandmate - a hunky fellow with his own leprechauny gleam - shows up, too.

Adapted from Cecelia Ahern's novel and directed by Richard LaGravenese - who steered Swank through the vastly more tolerable inspirational teacher flick, Freedom Writers - P.S. I Love You is a strangely cast, haltingly paced affair. Kathy Bates is Holly's glum bar-owner mom, singer/songwriter Nellie McKay makes her screen debut (with a Doris Day coif) as Holly's chirpy younger sister, and Gershon and Kudrow do their respective shticks (lippy, ditzy) as the girlfriends. Harry Connick Jr. acquits himself best of the lot, as a sad-sack bartender who befriends Holly - and wants to be more than friends. His character's own sorry state of affairs is the source of the movie's few genuinely funny lines.

LaGravenese clearly worships his leading lady, and he has said in interviews that he wanted to give Swank a more feminine, Audrey Hepburnesque role. But one look at the scene in which the shut-in, grieving Holly - wearing her dead hubby's boxers and suspenders - sings along to Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away" from A Star Is Born . . . well, there's nothing Audrey Hepburn-esque about it. It's scarily bad.

P.S. I Love You ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Richard LaGravenese. With Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Kathy Bates, Harry Connick Jr., Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, nudity, death, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

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Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.