"Love Liza" is a sad, strange little drama about spousal bereavement and gasoline addiction, and though mostly well done, I doubt we'd take much notice if the film weren't a showcase for one of our most brilliant young actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Hoffman, who gives one of his best, emotionally deepest performances in "Love Liza," is both a consummate actor and an unlikely movie star. With his pale, pudgy torso and mean boyish grins, he looks more like a typical movie fan, but that's part of what makes him so special. He's a magician of the ordinary, and in some of his best roles (the gay cameraman in "Boogie Nights," the losers of "Happiness and "Magnolia"), he can make the mundane both believable and spellbinding - which is pretty much what he has to do in "Love Liza."
The "Love Liza" script, which won the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize at Sundance, was written by Hoffman's brother Gordy, whose dry sensibility matches his brother's. It's the story of a man falling apart after the death of his wife, but it's done without any obvious grabs at melodrama. Instead, it's minimalist, neatly lyrical - like a Raymond Carver story done with the comic touch of a '70s director like Hal Ashby.
The Hoffmans and director Todd Louiso don't show the wife's suicide, but we do see Hoffman's character, Wilson Joel, descending into both intense grief, utter silliness and comic dysfunctionality - losing his job; alienating his friends, co-workers and mother-in-law Mary Ann (Kathy Bates); and finally becoming obsessed with both the subculture of model airplane-building and the bizarre practice of huffing (sniffing) gasoline to achieve a bleary stupor.
This addiction, one of the weirdest and most off-putting in any recent American film, links up metaphorically with wife Liza's suicide - she died inhaling gas fumes in their car - and also connects to his model airplane fad. To conceal his addiction from a smitten co-worker, Maura (Sarah Koskoff), he claims that the gas she smells at his house is fuel for model airplanes. This inevitably leads him to Maura's otherworldly brother-in-law Denny, a toy plane and toy boat enthusiast played with comic gusto by Jack Kehler.
While Wilson sinks deeper into addiction and lethargy - falling asleep on the floor, screaming at strangers and fouling up an important design assignment for his one patron (Stephen Tobolowsky) - he carries around with him his wife's unopened suicide note. It's the movie's obvious big payoff. But despite the pleading of Mary Ann, he refuses to read it, perhaps not wanting to use up the last communication he'll have with his dead love.
Wilson isn't really a great part, but it's a great opportunity for an actor with high skills, and Hoffman seizes the chance. Even when the script or direction (by first-timer Todd Louiso, who played Jack Black's sidekick in "High Fidelity") seem to falter, Hoffman never does. (Even more remarkably, this is one of seven 2002 movie-acting credits for the tireless Hoffman, including "25th Hour," "Punch Drunk Love," "Red Dragon" and several films we haven't seen yet.)
Hoffman eschews the little tricks actors use to seduce us, drawing Wilson with honest pain, but also with a slight theatrical edge that makes his scenes fascinating. It's one of his schmoe roles, like the cameraman in "Boogie Nights," (as opposed to the cocky bullies he plays in "Punch Drunk Love" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), and it probably couldn't have been done better by anybody.
Even so, "Love Liza" affected me in a weird way. Louiso has a confident touch and a good eye, and there isn't a scene in the film that wasn't intelligently done. Besides Hoffman's near-great performance as Joel, there isn't a bad or mediocre acting job on view either. (Kathy Bates, like Hoffman, is an absolute natural.) But Gordy Hoffman errs, I think, in not giving us more of the pre-collapse Wilson.
Because we never see Wilson until after the suicide, when depression has already set in and he's on a pathetic downward spiral, we have little idea what Wilson was before he turned into a gas-addicted basket case. Even though Hoffman is very good at suggesting depth, especially in the scene where Wilson finally reads Liza's letter, the spectacle of his degradation means less than it could have. With both Hoffmans at the controls, though, it still means quite a lot.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Love Liza"
Directed by Todd Louiso; written by Gordy Hoffman; photographed by Lisa Rinzler; edited by Anne Stein Katz; production designed by Stephen Beatrice; music by Jim O'Rourke; produced by Ruth Charny, Chris Hanley, Jeff Roda, Fernando Sulichin. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, Feb. 7. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (language, drug use, brief nudity).
Wilson Joel - Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mary Ann Bankhead - Kathy Bates
Denny - Jack Kehler
Maura - Sarah Koskoff
Tom Bailey - Stephen Tobolowsky Brenda - Erika Alexander
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times