(director: Todd Louiso; screenwriter: Gordy Hoffman; cinematographer: Lisa Rinzler; editor: Ann Stein Katz; music: Jim O’Rourke; cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Wilson Joel), Kathy Bates (Mary Ann Bankhead), Sarah Koskoff (Maura), Stephen Tobolowsky (Tom Bailey), Jack Kehler (Denny), Wayne Duvall (Gas Station Manager); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Chris Hanley/Ruth Charny/Jeff Roda/ Fernando Sulichin; Columbia Tristar/Sony Pictures Classics; 2002)
“Lays grief on with a thickness that smothers.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The star’s brother, Gordy Hoffman, pens the screenplay for this drama about dealing with the loss of a loved one, while the former actor in High Fidelity, Todd Louiso, directs his debut feature. Gordy was the recipient of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. “Love Liza” lays grief on with a thickness that smothers. As fine a character actor as Philip Seymour Hoffman is, he’s saddled with weak lines and an ill-conceived story line to pull off this somber tale that is not certain if it also wants to be amusing. The actor must in a physical way show himself coming apart in the three week period after his wife committed suicide, but the audience is clueless as to why he is so affected since we know zilch about him and his situation.
Liza has left her successful Web designer husband, the geeky Wilson, a suicide note that he is fearful of opening. Philip Seymour Hoffman is in nearly every scene, and it was wonderful to watch him change expressions and smartly turn himself into a lost soul (but even his fine portrayal became too much). But Philip’s bravo acting wasn’t enough to overcome his brother’s slight story. The loss of a loved one is universally understood, and Wilson’s reaction of public withdrawal is also not uncommon. But some of his other actions were either over-the-top cute or unconvincing, such as by accident getting into the hobby of remote-controlled model airplanes and sniffing gasoline fumes to forget his woes.
Wilson can’t face the others at work, as he doesn’t know how to act, laughs too hard at their lame jokes and awkwardly makes the others around him feel uncomfortable. His company urges him to take a vacation. When he returns from a week at the beach, he is just as tense. A fellow worker Maura, who is smitten, scares him off by mentioning that she finds him attractive. His mother-in-law Mary Ann is at first sympathetic and tries to keep him company, but becomes upset when he refuses to read the suicide note and keeps her distant. She begins to imagine the worst. He’s introduced by Maura to Denny when she discovers he’s got a similar hobby of model planes. Denny is an eccentric model-toy enthusiast and tries to share his skills with Wilson. They accidentally meet in Slidel, Louisiana, for a camping trip that features model speedboat races, as Wilson is on an aimless journey to forget his pain. But their relationship lacks strength to continue. In each scene, Wilson becomes more withdrawn and stranger, as he retreats to an inner world of pain where no one can reach him. By huffing gasoline he tries to come closer to his deceased wife, who committed suicide by inhaling exhaust fumes in their garage. Even though Wilson’s under such stress and is apparently out of it, he’s so talented that he’s recruited by another techie company. But the reptilian CEO Tom Bailey fails to understand the turmoil Wilson is under and their brief business relationship quickly ends just as it is beginning.
The film succeeds only as a strange telling of handling grief, told in a minimalist style and featuring episodic character adventures rather than being plot driven. But because we never get to see what is driving Wilson bonkers or have a clue as to what his relationship with his wife was like (one glimpse of his pretty blonde nude wife is not enough), it was hard to have genuine sympathy for him. I felt more or less like the workers in his Web workplace, who felt sorry but didn’t know what to make of his suffering. There were elements of black comedy that worked better than the dramatics, as Philip Seymour Hoffman poured his heart into this venture and his quirky performance might be enough for some to warrant seeing the film. But the story was too incomplete and leaning too much on pretensions to make the film worth more than merely a challenging oddity.
REVIEWED ON 6/8/2003 GRADE: C