Is there such a thing as too much Philip Seymour Hoffman? In Todd Louiso’s wrenching feature debut “Love Liza,” the visceral indie acting powerhouse plays Wilson Joel, a middling website designer so ill-equipped for coming to terms with his wife’s unexplained suicide (for which she left behind a note he cannot bear to open) that he turns to huffing gasoline in an effort to obliterate the edges of his grief. Lumbering through every scene like a depressed polar bear amok in the suburbs, Hoffman is unrelenting in his capacity for eliciting the maximum amount of suffering from the most wounded soul he’s inhabited thus far in his career. It’s a role that proves so grueling that the film nearly becomes unbearable. This spare Dramatic Competition entry, written by Hoffman’s older brother Gordy and directed with a straitjacketed restraint by Louiso, is so relentlessly downbeat that not even Hoffman’s staggering performance can rescue it from its grim commercial prospects. An acquired taste at best, “Love Liza” is a lethargic glimpse into the dark side of grief management that resonates with the same unpleasant force as Gena Rowlands guttural central performance in Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under The Influence.” Be prepared to watch much of this film through the cracks between your fingers.
With a series of lovable loser supporting roles in big, splashy affairs like “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Almost Famous,” Hoffman has dominated scenes with the bulky physical force of a Lithium-addled linebacker. He is fully adept at playing souls uncomfortable in their own skin and has no problems accentuating the unflattering. He stumbles, drools, knocks things over and flaunts his prodigious belly with no regard for his own vanity. Wilson Joel is a consolidation of many of these smaller roles, and Hoffman guides him back and forth from debilitating grief to awkward functionality with the same herky-jerky hesitation for which he has become known.
Essentially a one-note affair, “Love Liza” has a lot sequences with Hoffman lost in contemplative stares (on which Louiso holds his close-ups for uncomfortable lengths of time), then huffing another gasoline-soaked rag or erupting into a outbursts of shouting that rival Nicholson’s caustic performance in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” As Wilson picks himself up and sleepwalks back into life, he resembles a rag himself, capable of bursting into flames at any minute. When he stumbles into the world of remote control enthusiasts, the movie takes on an almost manic rush, if only for a few fleeting moments. There is humor at the absurdity of Wilson’s instant obsession, until the bleak reality sets it that he’ll leech on to virtually anything that will keep him alive. In one scene he disrupts a model boat race by stripping down to his skivvies for an impromptu swim in the lake. “Don’t you know who I am?” Wilson admonishes an audience of befuddled toy freaks. “I’m a big fan of remote control!” Hoffman pushes these scenes to their most visceral edge, then dares us to look away.
Supporting characters drift in and out of “Love Liza” like fleeting apparitions, including a saintly co-worker (Sarah Koskoff) who wrongly assumes that companionship will lift Joel out of his funk. After her own amorous advances don’t work, she introduces Joel to her brother-in-law Denny (Jack Kehler), a fellow remote control enthusiast who’s also on the verge of insanity but is better at concealing it. Then there’s Mary Ann (Kathy Bates, underused, but again, this is Hoffman’s beast), the perplexed mother of Joel’s dead wife whose own insurmountable pain takes the form of steadfast resilience and a determination to caretake. But her efforts to lure Wilson out of his slumber go unrewarded, as it eventually becomes clear that as “Love Liza” progresses toward its bleak climax, it’s grief will engulf everyone involved, including the audience.
Louiso’s confident directing style and Gordy Hoffman’s scant script keeps things minimal, and as a result Hoffman’s performance is never compromised or overwhelmed. Not even the vaguely spirited score from post-rock maestro Jim O’Rourke takes away from the sedated aura of a character and a performance so devastating that in the end that the film becomes almost too much to bear. Philip Seymour Hoffman is such an extraordinary and potent actor that, like the strongest heroin, it’s wise to take him in the smallest dose.
LOVE LIZA THEATRICAL REVIEW IndieWire, December 30, 2002
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