Philip Seymour Hoffman sniffs away the pain in Love Liza
Critically acclaimed character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has found himself the perfect leading role in Love Liza’s Wilson Joel, a dough-faced schlub struggling to overcome the pain caused by his wife’s recent suicide. Of course, it’s hardly a coincidence that Hoffman’s exceptional talent for playing sad-sack losers comes in so handy here; his brother Gordy, who won the screenwriting award for the Love Liza script at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, wrote the character with Philip in mind.
The peculiar story follows Wilson as he succumbs to addiction in order to escape his overwhelming grief. After discovering his wife’s sealed suicide letter, which he can’t bring himself to read, Wilson turns not to drugs or alcohol for relief but to the patently adolescent technique of sniffing gasoline. The origin of his habit is never made clear, but one huff leads to another, and before long, he’s in a perpetual state of groggy befuddlement.
In an effort to hide his problem from a well-meaning but intrusive co-worker who stops by unannounced to check up on him, Wilson claims his house smells of gasoline because he has a remote-controlled airplane. This white lie leads to an unexpected new friendship with Denny (Jack Kehler), a die hard “radio-controller” who introduces Wilson to the bizarre world of competitive remote-control racing. Although Wilson isn’t actually interested in the sport, he loves the opportunities it provides to indulge in his habit.
It also provides a temporary distraction his wife’s suicide letter, which Wilson is desperately avoiding. Try as he might, though, Wilson can’t stop thinking about the letter, because it’s always with him, clutched in his sweaty fist or stuffed unceremoniously into his back pocket.
Hoffman’s superb performance is complimented by an equally tremendous turn from Kathy Bates, as Liza’s inconsolable mother, Mary Ann. With their matching roly-poly bodies and basset hound faces, the two make an almost comical pair, save for their obvious misery. As desperate for Wilson to open the letter as he is to keep it sealed, Mary Ann eventually resorts to extreme measures in an attempt to get her way.
The film’s one weakness is that it provides almost no information about Wilson’s past, his pre-grief personality, or his relationship with Liza. Without a frame of reference, it’s difficult to fully assess his situation or to generate unreserved empathy. On the plus side, Hoffman’s outstanding performance and the uniqueness of the film’s situations keep things refreshingly unpredictable. Even better, there’s no glamorizing Wilson’s actions, as there might have been with heroin or alcohol. No, when he joins a couple of teenage huffers for a group sniff in his barren living room, he’s just a pitiful man engaged in the pathetic act of poisoning himself.