Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great actor. I have loved his work ever since his repressed, awkward nurse-man in Boogie Nights. However, this type of awkward and odd guy seems to the only role he plays. What would be a real stretch for Hoffman's magnificent acting abilities would be to play an average, everyday Joe. But somehow, I imagine, that too would come across as eccentric and idiosyncratic. In his latest role in Love Liza, Hoffman plays a troubled and tender widower, attempting to reorient his life in the face of his wife's suicide and the letter she left behind. This role, then, is a bit different, if only because Hoffman appeared at one point to have been an average, everyday man: successful web designer and loving husband. However, the movie doesn't begin until after his wife's death and thus follows his mental breakdown and journey to oddville, which really for Hoffman is just a return to normality.
Gordy Hoffman's script, awarded best screenplay at Sundance 2002, offers little more in terms of plot. Rather I would characterize the developments of the script as taking place in well-defined and highly differentiated moments. Of course, they all flow together into a linear and cohesive story, but everything about the film, from the writing and the direction down to the lighting and music (a nice score by Jim O'Rourke) maintains a kind of individualization of scenes. These key scenes build like motifs defined by their content.
The unopened letter that Wilson's (Hoffman) wife left behind for him remains the main visual and thematic element structuring the film. The letter is the only real unresolved issue, because it has the potential to change everything Wilson thought about himself and his wife. The letter is also the only thing that binds Wilson's mother-in-law (Kathy Bates) to the film's development.
However there are other elements are almost as poignant. For instance, in order to cope with the aftermath, Wilson develops a gas sniffing habit, which also leads to an RC hobby (so that he can have gas around). The first time he sniffs gas, the scene lingers on Wilson's face as it fades out of focus and the kitchen lights create an outline of his face in a glowing orange hue. As his habit progresses, so does the ways in which the film depicts it: Wilson's fuzzy vision and dulled wit, or a rainy street as seen through the windshield of his car. We understand what is happening, but never because of overstuffed visual motifs. Wilson's foray into the "extreme" world of RC rallies, also, plays wonderfully and provides the film (and Wilson) just the right amount of comic relief. In this respect, the direction and the script are wonderful. They never beat you over the head with the scene's intended meaning. Rather they give every scene its own feel that develops out the characters' mood or situation. It is the trope of American independent film, but Love Liza pulls it off beautifully.
That said, having given first-time screenwriter and director (erstwhile actor Todd Louiso of High Fidelity) his much due respect for an intriguing, if simple, first film, Love Liza isn't without its occasional snag. The writing, while mostly realistic and casual, at times seems forced and trite. The direction also doesn't always help here, when at certain key points the dramatic conflict and visual expressiveness become excessive. Even Hoffman seems to go too far, too fast at some points, and Kathy Bates has too few scenes to be stealing as many of them as she does. And while I do commend the simple yet expressive visual stylings, they are occasionally overdone.
The content of the film is rather depressing, but the great acting and well-written characters give the film a sense of overcoming, without the typical facing-your-fears-and-returning-to-normal endgame, so common to conventional plot progression. And while the writing, directing, and, yes, even the acting can, at times, go a bit too far, the film's simple approach to its basic premise maintains an air of ease and relaxedness despite all the tension, tears, and RC boats, cars, and planes. Certainly worth a peek, if not for the debut work of a director and screenwriter, then at least to see more of Hoffman's great, even if typical, performance. And, if you need a final resson, then see Love Liza because it manages to come in at just over 90 minutes (probably the shortest film this holiday season) and to say more than most movies can in two hours-plus.
Loves hot dogs.