From the self-loathing outsider Scotty in “Boogie Nights” to the uncool rock writer/mentor Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” Philip Seymour Hoffman often appears in the smallest but most memorable of roles. However, Hoffman never felt the weight of an entire film on his shoulders until Todd Louiso’s “Love Liza,” a gloomy but only adequate look into a husband’s unique grief featuring Hoffman as the leading man.
For his feature film debut, Louiso (better known as the Jazz-loving nanny in “Jerry Maguire”) immediately received some help in casting the ultra-talented second fiddle Hoffman as mourning web designer Wilson Joel and in landing Kathy Bates to play Mary Ann, the mother of Wilson’s passed wife Liza. While Hoffman is never much more than normal Hoffman, just in bigger doses, Bates’ grieving mother is a turn on the typical Bates role of the imposing, blunt-talking divorcee.
Wilson avoids coming to grips with his wife’s suicide, constantly eyeing but never opening the note she left for him under his pillow. In typical but suspenseful fashion, the note drives the story. It teases Wilson and the audience by its tendency to disappear and serving as a reminder of the wife Wilson can’t survive without. Quiet, scared Mary Ann refuses to rush Wilson in his bereavement. Dropping by the house to offer support, she instead finds an unconscious Wilson, high from huffing gas. This new addiction grants Wilson relief from this recent life of depression, deprived of any real salvation or comfort save for the fume-formed joy of his other new hobby/distraction, radio control planes.
Philips’s brother Gordy Hoffman scripted the film and received screenwriting honors at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Yet, despite the inventive storyline and a prevailing depressing tone to its credit, Hoffman’s screenplay too often repeats the same ideas. It frequently relies on the sole power of an anguished Wilson’s silence, which, while powerful and absorbing in its own right, cannot make for an entire film. “Love Liza” successfully captures real human emotion, but in the end retreads familiar Indie filmmaking plot-twists and a customary conclusion imparting a symbolic resolution while remaining unfinished and open-ended.
After the closing credits, one might have mixed feelings on Hoffman as a leading man. One may wish to thank him for keeping the redundant events from growing boring and detached, but there’s also the possibility that “Love Liza” would not have been made had he not signed on. Here’s hoping this was not Hoffman’s last chance for top billing and that next time P.T. Anderson is the writer/director in charge.
2 1/2 Stars