Philip Seymour Hoffman possesses eyes that would be beady if ever he played a true villain. Instead they merely have the propensity for appearing bleary. It’s an important interpretive distinction in Love Liza, in which he plays a man grieving for his wife in ways that might seem extreme to the untrained eye, but which, according to the codices of life and love, make perfect sense.
Wilson Joel’s (Hoffman’s) wife has killed herself just days before we meet him at the film’s outset. He is shell-shocked in all the right ways, flirting with the psychological DMZ that separates healthy grief from a more dangerous sadness. He can’t bear to sleep in his bed. He tries to imagine what Liza’s last thoughts were, what she saw as her heart stopped beating. It’s this last act of his broken heart that pushes him to the wrong side of no man’s land: Liza chose the garage route of suicide, stuffing a rag in a car’s tailpipe and turning the ignition. Wilson decides to deaden his senses the way she deadened hers.
That’s how Wilson becomes a gasoline huffer and why Hoffman’s eyes are such a valuable part of his performance. Through the meandering of the plot, as Wilson spirals downward into a strangely peaceful addiction to communing with his wife and an odd relationship with his boss’ remote-control-fanatic brother-in-law, Denny (Jack Kehler), Hoffman is asked to anchor every scene while his character descends deeper and deeper into a tragicomic abyss. I don’t know if Love Liza was originally intended to be a funny movie, but it veers away from that feeling early on. Wilson’s actions might seem humorous to people far removed from his situation – but this story is told from Wilson’s perspective, and that’s one of profound sorrow.
The driving plot device of Love Liza is a suicide note Wilson finds under his pillow but is unable to open, paralyzed by the fear — and the promise — of what might lie within. His mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), despondent in her own functional way, begs him to open it. Denny uses a strategy that he doesn’t even know is tough love, carping at Wilson to hurry up and get it over with. The letter is inevitably lost and recovered, and Wilson’s inability to act is finally overcome by his realization that reading the letter is his only chance at closure. Whether he finds the explanation or indictment he seeks is up for debate.
Opens Wednesday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].