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Love Liza
2002 - R - 93 Mins.
Director: Todd Louiso
Producer: Ruth Charny
Written By: Gordy Hoffman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates,
Review by: Marc Eastman
They say that everyone has an anchor in this life, and they don’t mean anything so simple, or hollow as what might immediately come to mind. It would be all too easy to think that they might mean a family member or spouse, and certainly for some that is indeed one’s anchor. No, I mean the sort of anchor without which life would suddenly become the sort of utterly meaningless that is hard to fathom unless it happens. Still, we are inclined to think of family members, and loved ones, but though we may be greatly affected by a person’s death, people die all the time, and it isn’t actually all that often that their survivors truly lose their wits. You see, most often this anchor is some intangible (all the better to be able to hang onto). A goal/dream/ambition. A religious or moral view. Indeed, whatever anchor a person may have, there is very often at least a religious sub-anchor (just try really shaking-up a religious view someone has long held, and see what they do). Those who say such things also say that the best (and worst) among us, the best (and worst) ‘adjusted’, are their own anchors. And then they go on to say that the very best (and worst) have no anchor at all. But, the point is, whatever a person’s anchor might be, the sudden loss of it will send that person into a nose-dive. When a person suddenly loses it, and thrown on top of that, has no idea why, it’s indescribable.

I mention this because ‘Love Liza’ is apparently the story of a man who loses his anchor, and doesn’t know why. ‘Apparently’, because I think it’s actually the story of a man who never had an anchor in the first place. He had a sort of machine that kept away storms, and negated tidal influences, and otherwise fairly effectively kept him in the same general area all the time, but that’s not an anchor. What he lost was not his anchor. What he lost was his means of pretending he had one.

I feel compelled to come right to the point, and state that I don’t think ‘Love Liza’ works. At least one of the myriad meanings of ‘good’ finds me agreeing that the movie is good, but I still don’t think it works.

‘Love Liza’ is the story of Wilson Joel (Philip Seymour Hoffman - ‘Red Dragon’, ‘Punch-Drunk Love’) whose name is cleverly back to front, if you take my meaning. Wilson’s wife recently committed suicide, and just as Wilson enters the very first stages of dealing with the fact, he finds a letter that she left for him. Wilson now finds himself in the utterly devastating position (if we can take the ‘anchor’ theory seriously at all) of knowing and not knowing why he lost his anchor at the same time. As if the loss of his wife weren’t enough to send him over the edge, the existence of the letter puts him into a state that, were we to call it ‘losing his wits’, it would be an affront to the witless everywhere.

Wilson, continually refusing and unable to open the letter, sinks into a depression so severe it hardly resembles depression anymore. He has gone over into something else. He turns, as is so often the case, to rendering himself numb by means of entering a chemically-altered state. In his case, he becomes a gasoline huffer, a term, by the way, that eludes me. He muddles along at work for a while, but it soon becomes apparent that he is really having difficulty. In order to cover up the gasoline odor when a co-worker stops by, he claims to have a radio-control airplane. In his dazed state, he even agrees to let a radio-control hobbyist come over to his house to see it. A spiral of lies and covers follows, but it isn’t all bad, because now he might as well really get some of that fancy R/C fuel to huff. Addict finds new source. Hilarity ensues.

Following along Wilson’s road is Mary Ann (Kathy Bates), Wilson’s mother-in-law. Distraught herself, she fumbles with her own attempts at getting through the grief, and clings (somewhat) to Wilson, the only thing she has left of her daughter.

From here we simply follow Wilson on his course, and even until the very end of the movie we are burdened with the nagging uncertainty as to which movie we’re watching. Is it the sort of movie where he’s going to eventually open the letter, or is it the sort where we will be left ever-wondering? Just when you think you know which sort of movie you’ve got, something happens that throws you into thinking it might go the other way.

‘Love Liza’ is basically a brilliant character. You might say character-study, but somehow it isn’t really. It’s just a brilliant character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is at just about his best. That ought to be all anyone needs to know. But, as I said, I really don’t think the movie works. Hoffman’s brother Gordy wrote the script (he has no other credits), and I don’t care if it did win at Sundance, it’s not a great script. It’s a script that shows a lot of promise, but it is also a script that has a lot of flaws.

What we are forced to assume is that Gordy had an idea for a denouement-avoiding ending, and a character, and convinced himself that a ‘powerful’ movie could be built from that. We’re left with several difficulties here. The main thing is that the movie seems like something that might have been a wonderful short-story, but turning it into feature-length film (without the addition of something else to work with) resulted in some filler, and saying the same things more often than necessary. Another problem we have is that, though the character of Wilson is not only excellent, but also excellently portrayed, characters still don’t exist in vacuums (not for long anyway). There are a few moments when Kathy Bates gives us something worth holding onto, but she, and her character, are also often horrible. Whenever we move even slightly away from our main character, we are immediately thrust into a world of amazingly average film, and it is felt all the more by being such a shocking transition.

But, perhaps the worst flaw of the movie comes from that ‘powerful’. It is so clear that we are aiming completely at 'powerful' throughout the entire movie, and like all attributes one tries to relate to ‘good’, just because that which is good is powerful, it doesn’t mean that that which is powerful is good. It’s tricky, this ‘quest for powerful’ road that the movie takes, and because the movie is so good in many ways, it is difficult to describe how this is a failing. The movie is, of course, trying to deliver a serious message, and hopes that it can relate something about all of us. It tries to do it through a story that is almost hyperbole (and by the end, frankly, it is, but not until then). But, in the midst of a story that cannot make a serious claim to hyperbole, everything is taken one exponential factor too far. This sort of ‘utterly real’, ‘no holds barred’, ‘more piled on more with a side of more’ approach is how this movie hopes to get its ‘powerfulness’. What it unfortunately doesn’t seem to see (and see ‘Gods and Generals’ for another example), is that there is actually a point at which you become so real you aren’t real anymore.

Surprisingly enough, however, all the criticisms I can put together on the movie don’t really have the sort of bite (to me) that I would expect. There are flaws in movies that are forgivable, especially in the face of other extremely positive aspects. Somehow, that isn’t exactly what’s going on here. The movie’s flaws aren’t the sort that ought to be forgivable. I can’t say that a complete lack of utility among the supporting actors, or a plot that actually repeats itself to fill time, or a story arc that doesn’t, or an inexpiably overweighted tone (you’ll notice I had to actually say ‘unforgivable’ just to properly describe that one) are forgivable. What could it mean to say such things?

No, it isn’t that I forgive these things. I just don’t seem to care about them, which is perhaps so similar as to be a meaningless distinction. Nevertheless, I can’t help appreciating the experience with Wilson Joel. He is done to such perfection that the final verdict is that I’m glad I met him. Though there are a few scenes which are really only so much stylized overture, by and large the character is a wonder, and Hoffman portrays him almost freakishly well. There is one scene in which Wilson ‘swims’ in the ocean, and there is no way to describe that scene, from any perspective at all, other than ‘Wilson Joel swimming in the ocean’. That’s worth watching whatever it takes to get there.

‘Love Liza’ is a movie about loss, dealing with tragedy, coping not so much with grief, but with forced, intense, introspection, and more than anything just understanding how the hell we make it through a day. Whether it’s a movie about a man who loses his anchor, and spirals out of control through (and out of) a world that is now without meaning; or a movie about a man who is forced to realize he has no anchor, has never formed the requisite adult sensibilities even to understand anchors, and thus finds himself in more of a detached state of having no control to be out of, well... it doesn’t really matter.

Whichever ‘deeper’ themes we eventually get at, ‘Love Liza’ is a movie about one man’s utter loss of ability that stems from the death of his wife. The story of a man maddeningly desperate for pictures of his wife (some anchor to an anchor theory perhaps), who, when he finds them, flips through them so fast, and is so high, he certainly gets no benefit from seeing them, but is instantly, thoroughly relieved nonetheless. It is far more than the return of something lost, and more than any value inherent in them. He gets his pay off from their mere existence.

Despite its play for power, ‘Love Liza’ is indeed an extremely touching film. It may have several serious flaws, and it may go about delivering its message in slightly the wrong way, but it does deliver it. I may not think it works, and I may not ultimately like it that much as a film, but it made me apologize to my wife. I may not have done anything exactly (and I may have for that matter), but I haven’t thanked her for existing often enough. And, I should have.
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

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