Hoffman's High Octane Performance

I've heard good things about Love Liza, and was intrigued about it, and at the last moment it was suggested to me this was supposed to be Phillip Seymore Hoffman's Leaving Las Vegas - Mike Figgis' film which won an Oscar for Nicolas Cage. So perhaps it was inevitable that the thought followed me through the film.

The comparison makes sense. We see Hoffman, as Wilson Joel, descend into full-on depression - all the while huffing enough gasoline and model fuel to get the London Bridge back to England - following the suicide of his wife. Hoffman never really does the same character twice, but a lot of them are grouped around a particular type, prone to introversion and low self-esteem. After watching him descend relentlessly into his self-destruction for an entire film, I can't help but think Hoffman might be trying to get some different sorts of roles, at least as a breather.

Wilson Joel is not alone in the world, though he may prefer otherwise. His mother-in-law (Kathy Bates) is grieving as well, and tries to reach out, but Wilson doesn't really want help. His boss comes on to him, but he simply cannot deal with that. Her brother, an unusual sort himself, somehow befriends Wilson, though, over - of all things - radio control modelling. It's a hazy relationship, from the completely different, yet somehow related, emotional spaces they are coming from.

The whole of the movie becomes predicated over the fate of the suicide note Wilson finds under his pillow. He finds himself unable to open it, carrying it everywhere with him. We know pretty soon - and not just from the title of the film - that this what it is all about. What's in the note? Will it provide Wilson with any closure? What has to happen for him to be ready to open it?

This brings me to how this film differs, quite dramatically, from Leaving Las Vegas. Love Liza comes from a very simple approach - marking Wilson's descent, without wavering for much other than a stray character note. In Figgis' film, there's a lot more going on - Nicolas Cage's drunk and Elizabeth Shue's prostitute strike a complex relationship, and leave us with some ambiguities about what the situation means for its characters. These are two valid approaches, but the broader approach of Vegas is more rewarding, without losing any of the same depth Love Liza achieves.

Without getting specific, a feel a little cheated by the ending, which is simultaneously uncompromising, but also unfulfilling in its treatment. I feel like somewhere between the writer and director there was an idea about how the film should end, what qualities should be there, and finally undermined the intent by playing those ideas completely straight. They could take a lesson from Monster's Ball on how to approach an ending like this. That film shows how it's possible to have a resolution with an actual resolution, which may or may not be what they wanted here, but would have worked better.

I still find Love Liza to be a worthwhile film, based solely on Hoffman's performance and the atmospheric way the film marks Wilson's descent. It falls short of a complete character study, but while depression is, well, depressing, we get a rich presentation of it here.

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