Love Liza (2002)

2002-12-30 (Limited release)

Love Liza wallows in grief and asks its audience to do likewise. It’s the story of a man whose wife has killed herself, leaving him with a suicide note he refuses to read and a lonely, dismal life. Focusing intently on the sad, empty face of Wilson (portrayed by the usually boisterous Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the film is so preoccupied with his attempts to come to grips with this tragedy that it loses sight of the lost object. We never know much about Liza.

But writer Gordy Hoffman (the star’s brother) and director Todd Louisa aren’t interested in whether or not we think that she’s worth missing; they’re fixated on grief as an object unto itself. Thus, with the exception of a couple of blurred photographs and one drug-induced, hallucinatory memory, we know only Liza as she is refracted through fragmented conversations between Wilson and her desolate mother, Mary Ann (Kathy Bates).

The wreckage left in the aftermath of a suicide is certainly timely and fertile ground for imaginative exploration, but Love Liza, cloaked in incandescent blues and greens by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and set to a sparse score by Jim O’Rourke, incessantly strikes the same melancholy chord. Louisa (a first-time director whose most notable previous work was as an actor in High Fidelity) takes great pains to illustrate, often through self-conscious panning shots, that Wilson is paralyzed both by the known (his wife’s death) and the unknown (her reason for killing herself).

Similar to Lynne Ramsey’s far superior Morvern Callar, Love Liza reveals its protagonist less through dialogue or action than through repeated facial close-ups. The difference is one of tone. Ramsey’s film works its magic in a dreamy, trance-like fashion, but Louisa’s — filled with scene after pointless, underlit scene of Hoffman doing nothing but sitting, miserable and alone, around his barren home — is simply sluggish and clunky. More often than not, Love Liza‘s narrative meandering recalls the unimaginative bluntness of an actors’ workshop production.

Still, Hoffman dives headfirst into the role of Wilson, emotionally retarded and searching for “closure,” and his committed performance is suitably tortured. The problem is that the character is blandly, and soon tediously, morose. Wilson is embarrassed by the attention of a former co-worker, Maura (Sarah Koskoff), loses his job, and develops a predilection for inhaling gas fumes. As Liza did herself in by clogging her car’s exhaust pipe and then sitting in the running car while parked in the garage, Wilson’s increasingly destructive gas inhalation rather obviously symbolizes his desire to join his wife. It’s a cheap device that hardly enlivens his self-indulgent mourning.

Through a random twist of fate, Wilson begins hanging out with Maura’s simple-minded brother, Denny (Jack Kehler), who introduces the slovenly gas huffer to the world of radio control. Wilson quickly takes to the new hobby — the film wants us to believe that he must regress into infantilism in order to heal himself — but his eventual trip to Louisiana for a radio control festival initially gives him an excuse to sniff copious amounts of gasoline.

Louisa takes a minimalist approach to this decidedly dreary material, and at times his compositions — such as a much-needed ebullient moment that finds Wilson swimming in sunshine-dappled lake amidst a host of radio-controlled boats — achieve a simplistic grace. For the most part, though, Love Liza fetishizes grief to the point of abstraction, leaving viewers in an emotional lurch.

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