Love Liza (2002)

Terry Sawyer

Phillip Seymour Hoffman defies the shallow gravity of Hollywood logic.

Love Liza

Director: Todd Louiso
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Jack Kehler, Sarah Koskoff, Stephen Tobolowsky
Distributor: limited
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2002-12-30

Phillip Seymour Hoffman defies the shallow gravity of Hollywood logic. What's never openly said about the effusive admiration for him is exactly why it comes couched in faint surprise. The answer is obvious: he's not all that good looking by Hollywood standards. He has a paunch. His hair is stringy and his skin translucent. Because casting directors with moral insight happen in with the same frequency as Ice Ages, it's still a big shocker when the associations of beauty and good or beauty and talent are somehow punctured by reality. In our pedestrian lives, we know that the best looking people are rarely the most talented, and even more rarely are they the coolest people to hang out with.

It's partially because Phillip Seymour Hoffman violates these criminally stupid coda, that I breathlessly await any film with him in it. Love Liza seemed like frame for Hoffman's acting chops. The movie is less about the narrative and more of an extended portrait piece chronicling a man's descent into grief. It's just the sort of movie you want to see someone with Hoffman's range tackle, someone who measures emotional inflection down to the grain.

Unfortunately, Love Liza ends up capsizing because of its singular focus on Hoffman's inexplicably grieving Wilson, who occupies almost every frame. The film begins in protracted silence, a meditation on Wilson's loneliness. He sleeps on the floor, plods around his house, and stares at his wife's suicide note. It's interminable. Sadly, it's also characteristic of the glacial pace that follows, made worse by the starved cinematography. It'd be easy to draw the parallel between this effect and the movie's "landscape of grief," and even easier to infer exactly how unwatchable such a movie would be.

Wilson's story unfolds as a series of badly stitched leaps and deboned cameos. He suddenly becomes addicted to huffing gas. He loses his job and freaks out on a potential, fleeting love interest. He develops some odd, offbeat canker of a friendship with Denny (played with maximum grate by Jack Kehler). He goes on a road trip, alienates his co-workers, hangs out with huffing teenagers, and attends model boat races. Wilson's mother-in-law, Mary Ann Bankhead (Kathy Bates) steals every single one of his possessions in order to locate the suicide note. Wilson burns his house down.

Crammed in between these lazily written plot curves are several characters who barely register. The notable exception is Mary Ann, whose desire to somehow save her daughter through Wilson, while tamping her rage at his inability to continue living, creates a refreshingly clear tension here. Hoffman's best scenes are those with Bates, where Wilson is trying to wrest his way out of her affection and concern and Mary Ann is trying to grapple with her daughter's suicide. Hoffman also captures the logy numbness of getting messed up on gasoline.

The special DVD commentary only makes the film seem even more ambling and like a piece of undergraduate creative writing. Director Todd Louiso says, about every five minutes, "I loved that shot," "I love this sequence," and other self-licking asides that seem mismatched to the actual scenes (it's a gas station, Todd, just a gas station). Worse, one realizes that the film's opaque logic is either torsionally symbolic (spilling glass = foreshadowing of addiction) or simply unexplained. We never find out why Wilson would pursue an unbelievable lie and end up becoming a model plane enthusiast, or how on earth this illuminates the architecture of loss. I loathe these sort of unstructured, bullshit session commentaries that run the length of the film. The egotism of recording free-range leaking is the curse of the DVD-extra. Most of the time is filled with limp jokes, dull inside stories, or observations that undermine any credit you may have been inclined to attribute to the film.

I was sincerely hoping that the movie would end in some interpretive epiphany that would transform the wandering plot into something thoughtful. But by the end of the movie, when Wilson finally mumbles aloud the contents of the suicide note, I couldn't have cared less. Even more annoying, the suicide note proves to offer no insight, nothing to help the viewer understand what was lost, a crippling absence for a film about grief.

The plot had so hobbled along, so launched into improbable tangents, that I craved only the resolution of this dreary Polaroid of mourning. The only grief I felt was for the lost opportunity and the time Hoffman could have spent making a different film. For a misstep, it's a well-intentioned one, I suppose, better than showing up in the Charlie's Angels sequel. Hoffman is one of the best actors working today. But Love Liza is only for the devoted Hoffman acolyte, the ones for whom his movies are like snorting a petrol-soaked paper sack.

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