A comic tragedy.
Could it be that the time of Philip Seymour Hoffman is upon us? Highly regarded yet often relegated to second billing (Punch-Drunk Love, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous), Hoffman finally had a chance to shine in Love Liza, a bleak look at what happens when your wife commits suicide (what, like it's supposed to be a perky look at what happens after suicide?). Also starring Oscar winner Kathy Bates (About Schmidt, Misery), Jack Kehler (Big Trouble), and Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day), Love Liza makes its debut on DVD care of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Web designer Wilson Joel (Hoffman) has just lost his wife to a tragic suicide. Dazed, Wilson hasn't any idea how to start his life over again. He seems to wander from moment to moment without any clue where his newly changed life is going. He still retains a relationship with his grieving mother-in-law (Bates) and a few of his co-workers, though his erratic behavior catches many off guard and isolates him from his work (his boss thinks it's best if he "takes some time off"). With nowhere to turn, Wilson finds himself caught in an addiction that could destroy his already off-balance existence. As he creates a new friendship with a co-worker's relative named Denny (Kehler)—their link being that Denny thinks Wilson is into remote control planes—Wilson struggles to grasp the magnitude of his situation. On top of this, Wilson is in possession of a suicide letter that his dead wife Liza wrote him. Unable to open it out of fear, anger, and guilt, Wilson carries the rustled envelope around with him, his final link to a now shattered past.
I've been lucky inasmuch as I've never experienced the pang-ridden hurt of loss. Aside of a grandfather and grandmother, I don't understand what it's like to have someone close to me die. Though losing a parent or elder is never easy, at least it coincides with the way things are supposed to go—someone who has lived a full life can often pass with peace. But how do you deal with the loss of someone like your brother, your best friend, or your spouse when they're taken before their time? Or, in Love Liza's case, taken their own life before their time?
It's interesting that Love Liza doesn't try to answer these questions or pretend to have all the answers. Instead, the film is a character study of Wilson, a man so distraught with heartache that he doesn't know what do with even a moment of his life. The film never gives reason why his wife killed herself (depression? adultery? drinking?) and instead dwells on Wilson's utter lack of dealing with her death. Though the tag line for Love Liza reads "a comic tragedy," the laughs feel few and far between; the bleakness of the story seems too heavy to hold true humor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman performs flawlessly as Wilson. Hoffman is proving himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. All hunched shoulders and blubbery frame, Hoffman is able to convey effectively what it must feel like to lose your life partner. Though we're never given a back story on their relationship, you get the eerie feeling that things just weren't right between them. Hoffman has the perfect qualities for this role—we've seen him mentally mowed down in such films as Boogie Nights and Happiness. In Love Liza, he is the broken remnants of a man who probably wasn't very stable to begin with. There are really only two main supporting characters in Love Liza: Kathy Bates as Wilson's mother-in-law and Jack Kehler as Wilson's newfound (though not sought after) friend. As usual, Bates does a magnificent job with her thankless role. During a conversation between Hoffman and her, you can literally feel the hurt as Hoffman cries that he has nothing and she responds with a gut-wrenching "you had everything!" Kehler is the obvious comedic relief in the film—his geeky obsession with model cars and boats makes for unique character play between him and Hoffman.
Gordy Hoffman, Philip's brother, wrote the film. This is his first screenplay, and from the look of it he may have a real shot at Hollywood. Though the film does have a few flaws—it may be slightly too depressing—Hoffman seems to have a real grasp of character and dialogue. Director Todd Louiso waves a sure and gentle hand over his material, creating a work that is depressing, resonant, and touching—somewhat of a rarity in Hollywood today. Though viewers will want to know what the letter (the film's title reference) Wilson carries around says, it's not nearly as revealing as what the actors' character's reveal. Recommended.
Love Liza is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with an anamorphic enhancement for 16x9 TV sets. Though this is a decent looking image, the picture often suffers from a fair amount of grain and dirt that is due in part to its low budge nature (some shots were achieved using DV or 16mm film stock). Some artifacting and edge enhancement is also present, though the bulk of the transfer is free from any excessive imperfections with solid blacks and colors throughout. This video presentation will be fine for most viewers, though it's far from a top notch transfer.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in English. Much like the video transfer, this Dolby mix is only mediocre (though to the film's credit, a 5.1 mix wasn't really warranted). The bulk of the track is focused through the center and front speakers. There are some nice moments of dynamic range (as when the melancholy songs chime in the background), and the bulk of the mix is free of distortion and hiss. Also included on this disc are English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi subtitles.
The extra features on Love Liza are fairly thin—the meatiest of them is a commentary track by Philip Seymour Hoffman, director Todd Louiso, and writer Gordy Hoffman. This commentary is fine in the way of info on the story and production; all three men seem like nice guys and have a lot to share about the film. Otherwise, it's a standard track that will most likely be enjoyed mostly by film aficionados and fans of the film.
Also included on this disc are filmographies for Kathy Bates and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a trailer for the film, and various trailers for other Columbia titles.
I don't know as I'd consider Love Liza to be a "fun" or "entertaining" movie, though it is one of the better movies of 2002. Hoffman gives a very affecting, genuine performance, complemented by the always wonderful Kathy Bates. The ending may leave some with a bad taste in their mouths—for me it was a perfect fit. Columbia's work on this disc is only mediocre—it's too bad something more couldn't have been done with the video and audio transfers.
Deeply heartfelt, Love Liza is a worthwhile watch.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Director Todd Louiso, and Screenwriter Gordy Hoffman
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