"Love Liza" is a slow, quiet, mannered meditation on death and loss that follows in the lugubrious footsteps of last year's "The Son's Room" and "I'm Going Home." Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a Web site designer named Wilson Joel, whom the audience meets as he's coming home from his wife's funeral. He sits in the car, holding a bouquet of wan flowers and a tinfoiled casserole, looking at his house as if it's a UFO that's just landed in his yard. "Love Liza," which was written by Hoffman's brother, Gordy, proceeds to follow Wilson as he picks up his life.
Except he doesn't: His wife inexplicably took her own life, a fact he can't come to grips with. His co-workers seem to expect him to bounce back as if nothing happened, and he has a tetchy relationship with his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates). Wilson can't bring himself to sleep in his old bed; he sleeps in the car or on the floor. One night, while filling his car with gas, he takes a whiff of the fumes emanating from the pump, and he becomes addicted to sniffing gasoline and model airplane fuel. This leads to an unlikely friendship with a model enthusiast and a weird, disastrous road trip to a hobbyists' weekend in Louisiana.
Hoffman -- who's been so good as one of Paul Thomas Anderson's repertory players in such films as "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love" -- gets a chance finally to take center stage in "Love Liza," and he delivers the kind of performance he's led his fans to expect. Director Todd Louiso films Wilson's fume-induced episodes with blurry camera effects, but even without visual tricks Hoffman seems to transform himself physically as Wilson's emotional state deteriorates. Still, it's impossible to discern what audiences are supposed to take from "Love Liza" -- surely not enlightenment, edification or that most unfashionable of values, entertainment. Despite Hoffman's best efforts, Wilson remains a silent, lumpish cipher; his encounters reveal nothing about who he is or who he was before.
"Love Liza" won an award at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and it's precisely the kind of somber, self-conscious film that gives the festival a bad name. There's a catharsis of sorts, wherein some of Wilson's emotional burden is lifted, the means of his denial literally destroys his past and he walks into an uncertain future. Sadly, the filmmakers haven't given viewers enough context or information about their protagonist to know whether he's utterly free or utterly unmoored -- or to care very much either way.
Love Liza (93 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle) is rated R for drug use, language and brief nudity.