love liza (2002)


director: todd louiso

philip seymour hoffman, kathy bates, jack kehler

An actor whose specialty is awkward, miserable characters rarely gets the sort of starring role Philip Seymour Hoffman has in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza. As a movie, it’s less a story than a character study, and an excruciating one at that, based on a screenplay written by Hoffman’s brother, Gordy.

Hoffman’s Wilson is slowly becoming overwhelmed with grief, his wife having just committed suicide in what feels like the a moment just before the first shot of the film. The grief is expected, even indulged, but he’s grieving badly, sleeping on the floor outside their bedroom and making his co-workers uncomfortable with unstoppable fits of laughter. His wife killed herself in their garage, plugging the exhaust pipe of her car, and some flailing lunge at a connection to this act prompts Wilson to start huffing gasoline.

The smell of fumes lead to a lie about his new hobby, and he plunges into the world of remote control model planes, less out of interest than a hunger for distraction, and an excuse to buy jugs of potent model engine fuel. He flees his job and his life with his wife’s unopened suicide note in his pocket, on a mortifying quest for humiliation, revelling in an apparently bottomless well of self-pity.

His only stable lifeline is his mother-in-law, played by Kathy Bates, who wants him to open the letter and face up to his loss, but the enormity of their loss overwhelms Wilson whenever he’s around her. Louiso manages a remarkable shift in tone in the middle of the film, when Wilson and his new remote-control buddy Denny (Jack Kehler) manage to turn the ominous letter into a combination of a totem and a joke, as they drive back from a remote-control competition. “You’ve got to open that thing near candles, and a dog. Or a priest,” Denny tells him. It’s a line typical of the film’s queasy humour.

The singleminded trajectory set by Louiso and writer Gordy Hoffman doesn’t give Wilson much chance of an escape until he bottoms out and opens the letter, and while Hoffman’s brother is utterly watchable at every, awful moment throughout the film, the impossibility of Wilson’s redemption is quickly apparent. Hoffman, the actor, has been praised as a virtuoso at playing weak men, and his brother gives him a chance to explore one of these men uninterrupted. It’s a brave, remarkable performance, but it manages to exist with only the barest hint of a film to contain it.