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Love Liza. (Sundance).

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Kinowelt Filmproduktion and Wild Bunch presentation in association with Studio Canal of a Muse/Black List production in association with Ruth Charny and Jeff Rota. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Santa Monica.) Produced by Chris Hanley, Fernando Sulichin, Charny, Roda. Executive producers, Alain de la Mata, Vincent Maraval, Daniel Guckau, Rainer Kolmel, Jim Czarnecki.

Directed by Todd Louiso. Screenplay, Gordy Hoffman. Camera (color), Lisa Rinzler; editors, Anne Stein, Katz; music, Jim O'Rourke; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; art director, Tim Cohn; costume designer, Jill Newell; sound (Dolby), Skip Godwin; supervising sound editor, Dean Mark Beattie; assistant director, Sholto Roeg; casting, Monika Mikkelsen, Rita VanderWal, Mark Bennett, Lisa Mae Fincannon. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 14, 2002. Running time: 90 MIN.
Wilson Joel         Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mary Ann Bankhead              Kathy Bates
Denny                          Jack Kehler
Maura Haas                   Sarah Koskoff
Tom Bailey              Stephen Tobolowsky
Brenda                     Erika Alexander


Philip Seymour Hoffman is the whole show in "Love Liza," a curious little character study written by the star's playwright brother Gordy Hoffman, who won the screenwriting award at the Sundance Festival. An investigation into a solitary man's grieving reaction to the loss of a loved one, as opposed to a family unit's struggle to cope as seen in such current attractions as "The Son's Room" and "In the Bedroom," Todd Louiso's directorial debut emerges at once as compelling and as a bit of a specimen due to the entirely singular nature of the protagonist's behavior. Sony Classics' best bet for putting this well-crafted work over with specialized auds is to position it as Hoffman's decisive transition from much-admired supporting character actor to heavyweight topliner.

Hoffman plays Wilson Joel, a shlumpy but seemingly gregarious young guy whose wife has just committed suicide. When first seen, he is trying to put on a good front with his colleagues at a small technological design company in an unidentified medium-sized Middle American town. Taking some time off, he makes the questionable decision to return to the beach resort where he and Liza spent their honeymoon.

Quietly lurking under every moment of Wilson's life is the question of why Liza took her life, and the hovering presence of a suicide letter that Wilson takes with him wherever he goes but can't bring himself to read. Then there is Liza's mother Mary Ann (Kathy Bates), who would dearly like some answers herself so that she can begin to understand what drove her daughter over the edge.

But Wilson isn't prepared to give her, or anyone else, any satisfaction on that score, and instead begins a private odyssey into an extremely peculiar addiction that reinforces his desire to avoid intimacy and comprehension of what's happened to his life. His drug of choice: gasoline, which he first sniffs out of a car tank and shortly buys in small containers and stores in his refrigerator. For those unfamiliar with this particular recreation, which certainly numbers almost everyone, deep inhaling seems to put the participant into muddled fog which, at least as expressed by Lisa Rinzler's nuanced camerawork, results in the world taking on a fuzzy glow.

Fleeing from the advances of a coworker, Maura (Sarah Koskoff), Wilson takes up a pastime guaranteed to make no emotional demands on him: remote-control model airplanes, a hobby he comes to share with a thin-skinned older man, Denny (Jack Kehler). What's more, these little planes require fuel, which gives him an excuse to have more of it around the house. In the picture's one extended interlude, Wilson takes a drive down to rural Louisiana, where he meets some other oddballs at a model boat speed tournament and causes a stir when he jumps in the lake to swim amongst the speeding small-scaled craft.

Matters come unpleasantly to a head with Wilson's job and mother-in-law shortly after he returns home. One of the picture's more intriguing and undeveloped threads has to do with Wilson's encounters with and generosity to a vagrant adolescent couple in constant search of gasoline fume highs. Pic fortunately avoids a melodramatic or forced tragic conclusion, ending instead on a note of none-too-promising ambiguity.

Providing virtually no information on Wilson's (or Liza's) past or his psychological disposition other than in regard to his late wife, the script proceeds in strange little zigzags that rule out any viewer confidence about what might be coming next. At the same time, the situations in the film are fresh and inventive and just plain odd enough to keep interest reasonably high.

Still, it's doubtful that the film would register nearly so well without Hoffman in the leading role. Pudgy, pasty and squinty-eyed, Hoffman would scarcely stand out in a crowd, and yet, as he almost always has in his numerous impressive character turns, the actor here displays a live-wire personality that makes him a magnetic figure even when portraying a state of thorough-going misery. The text does not so much literalize Wilson's suffering as submerge it, leaving it to the actor to express the character's pain indirectly through his choices of activities and his unpredictable behavior toward other people. Eventually, his addiction crosses the line from escape to self-destruction, and Hoffman achingly puts across the solitary despair of the man's crackup.

Supporting performances are credible but essentially one-dimensional. Director Louiso keeps the focus intently upon the central character, plausibly negotiates the tale's strange twists and, with the considerable assistance of cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, maintains visual interest despite the very mundane surroundings.
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Author:McCarthy, Todd; Leydon, Joe
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 28, 2002
Words:908
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