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LOVE LIZA

THE ONE STAGE OF GRIEF

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In Love Liza, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Wilson Joel, a man who's attractive to women. That takes some getting used to. In his most memorable roles -- as a gay man sick with love for a straight porn star in Boogie Nights, or a sexually frustrated pervert in Happiness, or the sensitive attendant to a dying man in Magnolia -- this wonderful actor, whose pallid, amorphous, copious physique looks like more people's bodies than we all may care to admit, is always busy with anxiety and beset with a plaintive loneliness. He often seems to be on the verge of tears, and that's true of Wilson, a Web designer whose beautiful young wife has just committed suicide.

But at least this time Hoffman plays a man who has a wife, and before long a woman friend confesses to Wilson that she's attracted to him. It's the last thing he needs to hear in his unrequited mourning, and he flees. In fact, Love Liza takes place in a world filled with people who are more than just uneasy dealing with grief. They're incompetent at it in almost unbelievably awkward ways.

Written by Gordy Hoffman (the actor's younger brother), and directed by Todd Louiso -- an actor you may remember from High Fidelity and Jerry Maguire -- Love Liza is in many ways a purposeless film, but in a sincere, serious, artistic, purposeful way. It's a decent example of why actors (and their brothers) don't necessarily make good writers and directors, and I suspect the ensemble behind Love Liza spent so much time thinking things out that they didn't notice how stilted it looked once they started to perform and film it.

Of course, that may be their point to some degree, but I don't think it's one worth making. You can't make a wooden drama about people with stifled emotions. You have to give their repression some tension and some energy, like Ingmar Bergman does, or Todd Solondz (who directed Hoffman in Happiness).

Through most of Love Liza, Wilson engages his responsibilities like a sanguine somnambulist. When he's not wandering about, pretending to be involved in his life, he's deadening his senses and tempting death by sniffing gasoline. When he accidentally becomes interested in motorized toy airplanes, he goes on a curious odyssey into an Arkansan world of toy airplane and boat competitions. This is all a metaphor, as well as a way to fill dramatic time.

When Love Liza gives Hoffman things to say, do and feel, he's fine as always: a seamless, absorbing open book of emotion. He plays his best scenes opposite Kathy Bates as his mother-in-law, a woman who's desperate to know what her daughter wrote in the suicide note she left addressed to Wilson, but which Wilson refuses to open until the dramatic climax that you wait almost 90 minutes to see. It's the liberation of Love Liza -- too little, too late. * *

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