[Screen It]

(2002) (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates) (R)

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Drama: A man tries to cope with his wife's suicide and the final note that she left him.
Wilson Joel (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN) is a software engineer whose wife, Liza, has just committed suicide. Understandably shocked and grieving, Wilson is just trying to get by and even news from his co-worker, Maura Haas (SARAH KOSKOFF), that a businessman, Tom Bailey (STEVEN TOBOLOWSKY), likes his work is of no comfort.

He eventually turns to inhaling gasoline fumes as a way of escaping, but must explain the smell to Maura by lying that it's from his work with remote controlled model airplanes. That ultimately leads to him meeting Denny (JACK KEHLER), an odd sort and model hobbyist who soon befriends the grieving and increasingly high widower.

Wilson's addiction to such fumes means that he can temporarily forget about his mixed urge and reluctance to open what's presumably Liza's suicide note to him. Her mother, Mary Ann Bankhead (KATHY BATES), doesn't want to read it either and it eventually becomes a tattered reminder of what once was. As Wilson's addiction grows more incessant, he tries to come to grips with what's occurred and eventually summon the courage to open that letter.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Like people, movies deal with death and loss in a variety of ways. Most action and horror films barely bat an eye at the loss of life, while comedies deal with the issue by pure irreverence or tempering sadness with humor.

Straight dramas, however, have to be more realistic in their approach, although there are varying degrees within that genre as well. Some use it as a means of simply showing how people react and cope (such as in "Men Don't Leave" and "Ordinary People"), while others include elements of self-discovery (as occurred in the recent "About Schmidt").

Actor turned director Todd Louiso (making his feature film debut) and writer Gordy Hoffman (also making his debut) mix some of all of the above in "Love Liza," an intriguing look at a man's reaction to his wife's suicide. With a strong performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Red Dragon," "Almost Famous") as the survivor, the film certainly has the right intentions. Yet, a number of script and directorial problems ultimately undermine the effort.

With only a few still photographs and one briefly remembered scene featuring the deceased, the filmmakers have opted not to focus on the victim or what drove her to take her own life. Instead, they show the results that such an action has on Hoffman's character. He's some sort of software programmer who copes and avoids reading his wife's suicide letter by becoming addicted to inhaling gasoline fumes.

Maybe I missed the point that some or all of what occurs is intended to be his grief-stricken or fume-induced viewpoint of his surroundings. If so, that would explain all of the unbelievable and/or contrived character behavior, dialogue and plot developments that occur throughout the film.

Whatever the case, many of those problems - which aren't always severe by themselves but cumulatively make things seem quite sloppy - could have been remedied by various script tweaks or the simple omission of the offending material.

As the effort stands, their presence gives the film an amateurish feel. They also rob the picture of its most vital element and that's having the viewer emotionally connected to the protagonist. While we understand his pain, grief and coping mechanisms (which mostly consists of the addiction to fumes), the film rarely elicits an emotional response from the viewer (unless one has recently gone through something similar). Without that, the film comes off as somewhat removed look at such issues, and it's a depressingly episodic and rambling one at that.

That said, and notwithstanding the lack of emotional connectivity, Hoffman is quite good in the part. Louiso gives the actor plenty of time to work the grief and addiction related material. For the most part, he's completely believable. The same holds true for Kathy Bates ("About Schmidt," "Dragonfly") as his similarly grief-stricken mother-in-law, but her lack of substantive screen time and character development prevents her from doing much with the role. Likewise, it also limits the viewer's emotional response in watching her cope.

Jack Kehler ("Big Trouble," "Forces of Nature") shows up as a somewhat odd, remote controlled model enthusiast who befriends Wilson, while Steven Tobolowsky ("Adaptation," "The Country Bears") and Sarah Koskoff ("That Thing You Do!" TV's "If These Walls Could Talk"") play business associates. They're generally okay, but they must work through and/or around some of that contrived and unbelievable material.

After the setup, the film repeatedly milks the question of what's written in the suicide note and why Wilson won't read it. One can understand the latter part - as it's his last communication with his wife - but the rest is far too manipulative and repetitive to keep the viewer interested. Although the eventual reading of the short letter has the emotional payoff we've been expecting, it's too little and too late for the overall film.

Messy, rambling and often as incoherent as the protagonist's fume-induced stupor, the film features a fine performance by Hoffman. Nevertheless, it has so many other problems that continually undermine the offering to the point that it's simply not as insightful or moving as it could and should have been. "Love Liza" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed January 31, 2003 / Posted February 7, 2003

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