40×40: Love Liza (2002)

Directed by Todd Louiso

“I’ll talk to you from there.”

Why Did I Get This?

Honestly, I don’t think I ever actually bought this – I have a worrying suspicion I borrowed it from a colleague at a job I left around 15 years ago and forgot I ever had it. If that’s the case, and on the incredibly tiny off-chance he’s reading this, then I’m really sorry Dan!

Ever since seeing him in Magnolia and The Talented Mr Ripley (I can’t remember which I saw first), I’ve loved Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work. He was an incredibly talented performer, and could bounce with apparent ease between comedy, tragedy and even ruthless menace (his villain in Mission: Impossible III is one of the more memorable ones from the franchise, if you ask me).

I’ve discussed previously how great he was in Punch-Drunk Love, but I think the premise of Love Liza was something that always made me hesitate before giving it a watch. Looking back at it, I think I’ve seen at least part of it, but recall very little about it.

It’s probably a good idea to offer a trigger warning here, as the film deals with the suicide of Hoffman’s character’s wife. It’s off-screen and takes place before the movie starts, but the whole movie deals with the fallout of her death and his reaction to it. The movie also deals with substance abuse.

But it’s a comedy, of sorts. Let’s give it a go…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

Love Liza is the story of Wilson Joel (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as he struggles to come to terms with his wife’s suicide, despite offers of support from his late-wife’s grieving mother Mary Ann (Kathy Bates). As his mental and emotional turmoil grows, he develops an addiction to numb the pain and begins to act unpredictably.

God, I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was one of those endlessly watchable performers who, even when they weren’t doing much, had acres of emotion behind their eyes and made you feel every moment you were watching them.

I’m really used to seeing him as a supporting character really, with his work with Paul Thomas Anderson and The Big Lebowski (and of course Punch-Drunk Love), but seeing him carrying a movie in Love Liza shows just how well-deserved his reputation was, and his move towards flawed leading man in arty or challenging movies really seems like a no-brainer.

I hadn’t realised until this viewing that the film was written by his older brother Gordy, but nothing about the movie feels nepotistic – Hoffman’s performance as a grieving husband is superb, and while the script might play to his strengths, his sadness, grief and emptiness still feels natural. I can’t think of anyone who could have brought Wilson to the screen in a more convincing way.

Weirdly, it’s Kathy Bates who – in the early stages of the film, at least – seems to be putting on a more stagey performance. While Wilson is sleeping in his car or on the floor outside the bedroom he shared with his wife, Mary Ann is trying hard to return to some level of normality, and to bring him with her, much to his chagrin.

While Bates doesn’t play it over the top, there’s a wide-eyed positivity to some of her early scenes with Hoffman that feel a little forced, but then she’s playing a mother who has just lost her daughter, and is trying to support her grieving son-in-law. Her character is putting on a performance to try and bring him round.

But the pair are so fragile that the slightest reminder of Liza could break them. When Wilson discovers his wife’s suicide letter and tells Mary Ann “Your daughter wrote me a note”, her first reaction is to sob “No”, before leaving in tears.

It’s interesting that he phrases it that way too – “your daughter”, not “my wife” or “Liza”. Indeed, Liza’s name is not mentioned until well into the runtime of the film. We don’t see her face in photos and any time we see an image of her, it’s blurred or obscured, as if the film – like Wilson – can’t bring itself to think of her except in abstract.

Once discovered, the envelope becomes a totem for Wilson. At first, he keeps it out of sight, in drawers or in the glove box of his car, but as he gradually begins to accept his wife’s death, he begins to carry it around with him – never quite having the bravery to open it, for fear of what his wife’s final words might reveal about himself and their relationship, but always needing to be close to that scrap of paper with his name written in her hand.

Looking at Wilson’s relationships outside of his late wife and her mother, his strongest connections are with his boss Maura (Sarah Koskoff), who suggests he takes some time off following an episode of hysteria at work. This leads to him taking a break to the beach where he and his wife enjoyed their honeymoon (and a comic scene with a couple who make a point of not asking where Liza is), and it’s on his return to the airport that Wilson finds the smell of fuel intoxicating – more of that in a minute.

Maura’s care for Wilson seems sweet at first, and her concern seems genuine. She makes excuses for him missing an important meeting with a client (Stephen Tobolowsky, brilliant as ever), before telling Wilson she is attracted to him while they’re on a visit to the zoo. This felt really rushed – his wife has only been dead a few weeks, and while I get they had to move Wilson’s story on, it feels like a surprisingly quick move from the character. But she gets shouted at by Kathy Bates later in the film, so that’s fine.

So, back to the fuel thing.

Wilson’s sheepish approach to buying cans of petrol, when he finds the fumes make him light-headed, is very funny, but also quite underplayed. His nervousness when approaching petrol station attendants is akin to a grown man buying pornography – there’s nothing illegal happening, but he feels like it’s something he shouldn’t be doing.

Or that’s what I’m told it’s like, anyway.

Before too long, he’s huffing fumes from a petrol soaked rag and passing out on his floor, in his garden, in his car, and at a radio controlled vehicle convention he’s attended because he’s bought an RC plane as an excuse for buying so much fuel.

The initial sniffing of a fuel-soaked towel isn’t played for laughs, instead, Louiso plays a nice little trick with the shot focus to give us an idea of Wilson’s mental state as he gets high. Waking up from his stupor, he knocks the fuel can over the floor and a rug, which is played for laughs, but turns out to have a more serious effect in the final scenes of the film.

As more and more people mention they can smell petrol (sorry, “gas”), around him, Wilson takes to storing his fuel in the fridge, and lies about having a remote controlled plane. This story spirals out of control when Maura mentions her brother in law is an RC nut and arranges for them to meet, causing Wilson to have to buy a plane he doesn’t want and meet an enthusiast he has no interest in meeting.

But it turns out his friendship with Denny (played by Jack Kehler – a budget Dan Hedaya), turns into something more than expected. Over the course of the film, Denny becomes Wilson’s only friend, and the first person other than Mary Ann with whom he discusses Liza’s note, leading to a sweet and funny extended conversation taking place during a road trip about when he should and shouldn’t open it (not in the men’s room, probably somewhere with candles or a dog).

Having the letter as a sort of MacGuffin throughout the film is a nice idea, more so by the conflict it brings between Wilson and Mary Ann, but also Wilson and himself. At one point, while overcome with petrol fumes, he tries to tell a random trucker…

“It’s a suicide note from my wife. I think I did something.”

… but isn’t heard over the noise of the truck stop.

He’s hesitant to open the letter and find out what caused his wife to take her own life, worried about what it might reveal, and that torments him – he can’t remember clearly Liza as she lived, but by opening that envelope in an effort to better understand why she died, will he change everything he ever knew about their life together? That’s a hell of a thing to weigh on your mind, and Hoffman portrays it beautifully.

Mary Ann desperately wants to know what’s in the letter too, she needs to understand why her daughter did what she did, but the letter isn’t hers to open. By refusing to read the note, Wilson is denying her some form of closure, some guidance on why she’s lost a loved one or who or what she should be angry about. Naturally, Mary Ann is angry at Wilson, but the step she takes to try and force his hand is – like Maura’s revelation – so abrupt and leftfield that it seems out of place with the rest of the film.

While Wilson’s off on one of his huffing-induced walkabouts, his house is burgled. Every scrap of furniture and household item is stolen, including photographs of Liza and her suicide note. This causes Wilson to spiral further out of control, screaming at Denny, offering fuel-soaked rags to local teens, getting fired from his new job with Stephen Tobolowski, and arguing in the street with Mary Ann.

The argument ends with Wilson begging for photograph of Liza, then screaming at Mary Ann that he has nothing, to which she responds…

“You had everything! You had everything.”

The way Bates’ eyes widen and voice cracks during the first ‘everything’ is heart breaking, as if she’s never dared say the words out loud, and the resentment and anger and disappointment has finally made its way to the surface. It’s brutal, powerful, and beautifully played by Bates.

Later, Wilson breaks into Mary Ann’s basement and discovers all his possessions there, including his photos of Liza, but not the suicide note – she’s the one who robbed him, and as he ascends the stairs into her home, it feels ominously quiet.

At this point, I genuinely thought the reveal would be Mary Ann dead holding the note, and there’s some suggestion on the commentary that it was filmed that way, before the decision was made to have her sitting in the bathroom holding the unopened note.

To me, that’s the better call and feels more genuine than a shock death for the sake of hammering home a point.

Back in his home, surrounded by his things and looking a bit tidier than he has been, Wilson finally summons up the courage to open the note and read it. I won’t share the transcript, save to say it’s short, sad, and read aloud with a beautiful performance from Hoffman as he fights back tears.

Also included in the envelope is a single match, which confused me, but Wilson understood Liza’s intention immediately – she’s going to live on in his heart and mind. She is not going to live on through the note, so once he’s read it, he can destroy it and start to move on.

But the thing is… Liza hadn’t accounted for his newfound love of huffing petrol and the spillage on the rug, so after the room goes up in flames, the final image of the film sees Hoffman wearing just boxers and socks walking out of his home and down the middle of the road towards the city. It’s daytime when he leaves the house, dark by the time he reaches the city road, but it doesn’t look cold or uncaring, but illuminated and almost welcoming.

Cleansed by fire? Sure, why not.

Hoffman said he considered an alternative title for Love Liza would be something like The First Step. It’s obviously not a film that would ever have needed a sequel, but it encapsulates a move towards healing or getting past the immediate grief of loss and ends – as he says on the commentary track – with Wilson taking steps towards his next adventure.


It’s probably fair to say Hoffman felt comfortable exploring this role and spending a surprising amount of the film with his shirt off or a camera right up in his face because it was a low budget film written by his brother and directed by Louiso who, judging by how well the trio engage on the commentary, became a friend.

I haven’t seen anything else directed by Louiso, or written by Hoffman, but based on this I’m curious to.

In terms of how it looks, it’s got that slightly grungy, early 2000s feel to it – almost grimy and fuzzy in the darkness, bright and crisp in the light – while the driving scenes feel like they could’ve been filmed in the 1970s, with a nice grain to them and a leisurely pace that Ghost Dog would be proud of.

Recommended, in case you couldn’t tell. It’s not going to be for everyone, but Love Liza handles the difficult topics of suicide and substance abuse with a surprising balance of lightness and emotional weight, anchored by Hoffman’s effortlessly brilliant performance.

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