- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

"Love Liza" derives its title from the farewell words on a suicide note. The movie itself reflects a suicidal sense of timing in the Washington market, appearing at the same time the American Film Institute Theater is playing host to a revival of a great Akira Kurosawa movie, "Ikiru." As a result, a newly minted example of the hapless and insufferable tear-jerker finds itself put to shame by a masterful, 50-year-old specimen of the genre.
A Chicago-based playwright named Gordy Hoffman fabricated the script for his better-known sibling, the pudgy and sometimes fascinating young character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, a distinctive interpreter of pathetic roles from "Boogie Nights" through "25th Hour."
The protagonist, Wilson Joel, a prosperous designer of Web sites in an undisclosed city (Mobile, Ala., supplied the clandestine location), is discovered grieving over the sudden death of his wife, Liza, whose motives for taking her life are destined to remain undisclosed.
We get a belated peek in flashback: Liza naked and stepping into the shower. On the face of things, not a breakthrough clue. The incriminating note, found in an envelope under Liza's pillow, remains a morbid tease. Wilson doesn't have the heart to open it, read it and "move on," as his mother-in-law Mary Ann advises. Another bad break: Mary Ann is played by Kathy Bates, reverting to that unflattering butch haircut from "Dragonfly" but left without a shred of dignity while wrangling with her woeful son-in-law.
Ultimately, Wilson faces the painful task of reading the note aloud, and it fails to justify the tease. Once again we're confronted with a priceless movie enigma: Who gets the blame for the lack of farewell inspiration and poignancy, the late Liza or the screenwriter?
Wilson takes to sleeping on the floor and begins the first of what prove chronic interludes of sniffing gasoline fumes. He's appalled at the colleague, Maura (Sarah Koskoff), who confesses her fondness for him. I was too, since it can't be Wilson's looks, charm, true grit or promise that attract her, leaving only mercenary motives ungallant to contemplate.
At Maura's urging, Jack Kehler turns up as a happy hobbyist named Denny, whose enthusiasm for radio-controlled models gives the plot a potentially consoling and morale-restoring element.
Trying to fake it, Wilson buys some already completed models and even blunders into a weekend competition among model boat operators attended by Denny. Nothing seems to comfort the forlorn widower except his reeking gas rag, whose short-term consequences are not encouraging.
Don't even bring up the long-term. What with storing fuel in his fridge and contributing to the delinquency of two vagabond teenage addicts ("huffers" appears to be the preferred term, one of the stray bits of expertise to be gleaned from "Love Liza"), it's a wonder that Wilson doesn't go up in flames or get clapped in irons.
Not that the last sight of him isn't picturesquely bleak: Only desolation or confinement seem to loom on the horizon.
Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, stuck with material that disarms her previous flair in such independent features as "Zebrahead," "Menace II Society" and "Pollock," does a complete orbit of Mr. Hoffman while he sustains one of his trademark frowns, making it harder to keep a straight face on the receiving end.
It's a safe guess that the starring prospects of Mr. Hoffman will dim a shade if "Love Liza" is actually seen by more than a handful of incredulous moviegoers. Strangely, or perhaps not, it was reputed to be a deeply moving experience when unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago. Gordy Hoffman even won the Waldo Salt Award for best screenplay.
Perhaps the Sundance jury was also under the influence of disabling fumes.

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