Love Liza
directed by Todd Louiso
(Sony Pictures, 2002)

Wilson Joel has Kathy Bates for his mother-in-law. But that's the least of his problems.

Since his wife committed suicide, Joe, a videogame designer, has done little but sleep in the hallway, annoy his co-workers by laughing too hard and NOT read the letter he found addressed to himself under the pillows on the bed where he and Liza slept.

Love Liza is, to say the least, an unusual film. It follows Joel (Philip Seymour Hoffman) through a tortuous and tortured journey that begins when a well-meaning if somewhat misguided co-worker suggests he take some time off work to help him get through a period of mourning. But nothing seems to work for Joel, until he gets some gasoline fumes into his head and decides that a liberal dose of oblivion is just what he needs.

Love Liza proves him wrong, but it takes some doing.

At the heart of the movie are a trio of winning performances and a script that keeps you guessing up until the very end.

Hoffman, who's probably best remembered as Creem Magazine writer Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, is an old hand when it comes to playing quirky characters, and Joel rates among the quirkiest. Pudgy and badly coifed, he comes across here as a kind of scaled-down John Candy.

Bates, looking rather butch in her graying crewcut, is oddly sympathetic as Joel's mother-in-law, though her sympathy eventually develops some difficult limits.

But both of them nearly get upstaged by longtime character actor Jack Kehler as Danny, a remote-control model enthusiast who descends on Joel like a dork out of hell, becomes easily the most sympathetic and observant character in the film, but ultimately turns on Joel when the truth comes out: Joel's only real interest in remote-control models is in sniffing the fuel.

Now if none of this sounds terribly funny, be prepared for a surprise: it is. Not always, but often, and often when you're not expecting it. That's part of the genius of the script by Gordy Hoffman, older brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the playful nature of many of the film's later scenes, especially when Joel decides to crash a remote-control convention.

Neither side quite knows what to make of the other, and that eventually makes for a fair amount of fun.

Love Liza was directed by Todd Louiso, whose only other directorial effort was The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, in which he also played Ophelia. But the young director guided Liza with a steady hand, earning his film a nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won Gordy Hoffman a prize for his screenplay.) It's well-photographed, cleanly edited and has a strong visual sense. In fact, the opening scenes are so quiet I was beginning to think my sound system was on the fritz.

Love Liza isn't likely to make Top 100 lists or be heralded as "the next Star Wars." It's a small film that makes an odd statement in small ways. It won't overwhelm you, but I guarantee it will be hard to forget.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 6 December 2003

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