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Love Liza

  Love Liza
Philip Seymour Hoffman can't see the aquarium for the water.

© 2002, Sony Pictures Classics
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There's no gentle way to put it. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Annie Wilkes…er, I mean, Kathy Bates, emote their way through "Love Liza" (IMDb listing) is more like sitting through an actors workshop than watching a movie. When able actors begin calling attention to themselves, my ever-witching finger of blame tends to waggle in the direction of the script. And here we have a doozy. It's the kind of thing anyone would be proud to turn in for an undergraduate creative writing course, but for the love of god, let's keep this sort of drivel out of the public eye.

Yet as hopeless as the story of a computer genius turned gas-huffer following his wife's suicide is, the right director might still have saved it. Todd Louiso is not that director. I'll give just about anyone except Gore Verbinski and Paul Verhoeven the benefit of the doubt when the opening 20 minutes of a film are a little…well, boring. After all, maybe the director will end up having something to say through the use of deliberate pacing (although I'm not sure if anyone has been very effective at telling a compelling story at a snail's pace since Kubrick). But with "Love Liza," my patience went unrewarded, and before I knew it I had squandered yet another hour-and-a-half of my hard-earned free time.

The title of the film refers to the suicide note that Wilson's (Hoffman) wife has left behind with his name on the envelope. The movie is, on one level, about Wilson finding the courage to open and read the missive. When he finally does, prop your lower jaw for the anticlimactic brevity of Liza's farewell message. The most important thing about the note is that in it Liza gives Wilson permission--in fact urges him--to "find another." He probably hasn't burned all of his bridges with his former boss, who has shown some romantic interest in him, so maybe beyond the scope of the actual film, Wilson will turn his life around. But shouldn't one of the most provocative aspects of the story have found its way into the film? I think so. A lot could have been done with the dynamic between Wilson and his manager. Is she attracted to him for who he is, or is she masochistically drawn to his crippling depression?

These questions aren't touched on with more than a glancing blow, and the film suffers for its aloofness to the subject matter it implies. Hoffman is fun, but not nearly as much fun as he was in "Happiness." Bates is dependable, but ultimately overqualified for the two-dimensional role she's been given to work with. Wilson makes a promising connection with a man named Denny (Jack Kehler), but aside from leading us to a radio controlled boat race in Arkansas, and later a contrived blowout argument, nothing much happens with this, either.

My guess is that there's supposed to be some kind of symbolic importance to the obsession with model airplanes that gets thrust upon Wilson as an offshoot of his need to sniff fuel. Maybe even the strange nature of his new addiction is meant to resonate in profound ways. But mostly what I see in Wilson is a hapless weakling, surrounded by people too stupid or uncaring to offer him the help he needs when he needs it. "Love Liza" wants to be a depressing film, but it fails to go the distance in terms of telling a story. There's too little incentive for the audience to invest in the characters or their activities. So, depressing? Somewhat, but probably not in the way Louiso and screenwriter Gordy Hoffman intended.

Filmfodder Grade: D+

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