Love Liza Review

It's very rare for a relatively mainstream film to come along which is impossible to categorise but Love Liza is the exception. A bewildering but very interesting mixture of pitch-black comedy, heartfelt tragedy and intense character study, it's bound to delight some viewers and infuriate others - much like P.T.Anderson's Punch Drunk Love which is also released on DVD this month. As you watch it you realise that it really shouldn't work but the skill of the acting and the general tact of the writing overcome such reservations and leave you feeling that you've seen a film which really is one-of-a-kind.

Wilson (Hoffman) is a web designer whose life has been destroyed following the sudden suicide of his wife Liza. Somewhat inarticulate, shambling and not especially sympathetic, Wilson struggles to express his despair to anyone, even his solicitous mother in law (Bates). When he finds a letter from his wife, presumably a suicide note, every instinct tells him to read it but he shrinks away from the task as if knowing why she killed herself would somehow take her even further away from him. As he begins to drift away from work and the friends he shared with Liza, Wilson finds his only solace in substance abuse; sniffing gasoline, whether straight from the nozzle at a gas station or in a can which he buys specifically for the purpose. When his attractive and friendly boss Maura (Alexander) turns up at his house and wonders why there is a conspicuous odour of petrol, Wilson has to make up a story and tells her that it's the result of his obsession with model, remote-control aeroplanes. This simple untruth leads to Maura introducing him to her brother-in-law Denny (Kehler), a remote-control model enthusiast, and Wilson begins, unwillingly, to make some kind of rapprochement with the outside world. But a spur-of-the-moment flirtation by Maura leads Wilson to panic, run away and go on the road with his model plane in the hope of finding something which might explain to him why he should bother to go on living.

Although the above suggests that this is a road movie, and in some senses it is, it's not by any means a traditional one. Wilson's trip out into middle America is halting and unsuccessful and he winds up right back where he started with no more understanding of the world than he had at the beginning. The final half hour becomes increasingly bleak and desperate as Wilson turns to the comforting oblivion of petrol fumes in order to numb the pain from which he can't escape. This leads to an ambiguous and, to some, maddeningly open-ended climax which I found very brave and effective. More than a road movie, it's a disturbingly intense character study of a man whose behaviour becomes increasingly irrational as the film goes on. In traditional Hollywood filmmaking, characters may begin in darkness but gradually learn and gain in understanding which allows them to edge into the light. This film is almost the inverse. Wilson has more ability to interact with the world at the beginning and gains nothing but incomprehension as he journeys deeper into his own emotions. You may well want to slap him as he continues to procrastinate about whether or not to open the letter but it's entirely consistent with his character that this is exactly what he would avoid doing. Throughout the film, Wilson takes the hard option when an easy one presents itself and his loneliness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as he drives away potential friends.

Eventually, the only people who want anything to do with him are two teenage petrol-fume addicts who are almost as pathetic as he is. It's a tribute to the power of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance that Wilson is more pitiable than annoying to watch, although it's a close-run thing. Hoffman has always been good at playing characters who are so socially inept that they are virtually inarticulate - a trait which reached its apotheosis in Todd Solondz's Happiness and was usefully explored in Spike Lee's recent 25th Hour - and he turns Wilson into a complex man who initially seems to have a very simple problem. When he bites at the people who want to help him, or snarls feebly through a haze of gasoline, he's a recognisably pathetic figure who gains our sympathy because we recognise how totally lost he has become. This is the kind of acting which gains its power by hovering on the edge of being embarrassing and Hoffman is careful never to tip over that ledge. It's a potent, troubling study of grief that is all the more affecting for not having a simple solution and not reaching a traditionally happy conclusion. Every time a happy ending for the character opens up, the possibility is slammed shut. The final shot is as memorable an expression of being hopelessly adrift in a world which has lost any meaning as you could want and it's a very brave way to end a film which, in the trailer, looks like some kind of romantic comedy.

Lest my description makes this sound depressing, I should point out that it is often very funny. Hoffman's comic timing is razor-sharp in some scenes and there's a delightful sense of freedom in such moments as when he chases waves in Mexico and takes an impromptu swim in a lake where a demonstration of remote control boats is being held. Much of the humour is so deadpan as to be entirely reliant on one's personal taste and frequently you find yourself choking on the laugh when the tone suddenly blackens and the joke stops being funny. But that's part of the appeal of this kind of film. Lightening the atmosphere somewhat is a lovely supporting performance from Jack Kehler, an actor who is simply funny and buzzing with perverse optimism given the circumstances of his life. Unusually, Kathy Bates - often a comic whirlwind as her electrifying supporting performances in About Schmidt and Primary Colours have shown - is restrained and incredibly moving as the mother who is just as incredulously grief-stricken as Wilson but trying harder not to show it.

Memorable little moments abound in this film, often more satisfying than the more self-conscious big scenes - Wilson finding a lock of hair on one of his wife's hair bands; his ecstatic grin of spaced-out oblivion when he's lying among the unpacked computer equipment in his house; Kathy Bates sitting on the edge of the bath in mute despair; the way Wilson screams with hysterical laughter at a colleague's joke for so long that he's left alone when the others drift off in embarrassment. Todd Louiso's direction is full of beautifully composed images and some clever visual coups - I adore the scene of Wilson looking at a photo which drifts in and out of focus - but you do feel that the film is hovering on the edge of being extraordinary and never quite making the leap. Perhaps its that the structuring of Gordy Hoffman's screenplay is dependent on revelations that don't come or that the central performance is allowed to dominate the narrative thus rendering the pacing a little too erratic. But it's hard to make a movie about something that is essentially inarticulate and this is a genuinely impressive feature debut for Louiso as director - as an actor he's appeared in a number of movies, most memorably as Dick in High Fidelity. It's inevitable that Love Liza will strike some people as slow and uninvolving but if you can make the leap of sympathy for a character who is as awkward and unlovable as Wilson then you will be very well rewarded.

The Disc

Along with the recent release of Charlie's Angels: Season One, this is an interesting departure for Columbia DVD in that it appears to be a straight transfer of the NTSC Region 1 disc. Supplying discs to the UK which are NTSC rather than PAL opens a whole can of worms of course, one that I don't intend to delve into. Suffice to say that this does mean that we in the UK get a disc which is identical to the Region 1 release and, for a small film like this, that pays dividends.

Unfortunately, it also means that we're stuck with the picture quality of the R1 disc. It's not a bad transfer at all but it isn't very impressive. The film was shot on a range of mediums, including digital video, which results in an intentionally variable picture quality and partially accounts for the grain which is visible throughout. There is no similar excuse for the artifacting which is frequently present however and there is a slight softness throughout which is sometimes effective and sometimes a little annoying. On a more positive note, contrast is good and the colours are rich and full. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack is a direct transfer of the original stereo mix in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. It's actually a very effective track for a film such as this with the music sounding particularly satisfying throughout. Dialogue is sometimes directionally placed across the front channels and the sound effects create some nice surround moments. There's not much point in a film like this getting a 5.1 remix and this is as good a 2.0 stereo track as you could want.

The main extra feature is a commentary from Louiso and the Brothers Hoffman. Once you sort out who is who, which takes a while, its easy to enjoy the track as the participants have plenty to say and are engagingly enthusiastic about a film which was obviously a labour of love for all involved. I was particularly surprised to hear that it was shot in just over three weeks. We also get filmographies for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates and the original theatrical trailer. This is interesting in that it gives a skewed impression of the film as I suggested earlier. Also included are trailers for Adaptation, Big Shot's Funeral and Punch-Drunk Love.

There are a very generous 28 chapter stops and a small selection of subtitles.

I don't quite know whether to recommend Love Liza or simply state that I found it a very moving and interesting film while being entirely aware that some people will hate every minute of it. Overall, I think it's got enough good qualities to be worth watching, not least because Philip Seymour Hoffman has rarely given a better performance. The DVD is a good package, despite the average quality of the picture, and isn't likely to disappoint anyone who likes the film.

Love Liza is released on the 14th July

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