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Unusual Bag of Goodies

'Love Liza' forgoes the standard formula to highlight the script and its characters.

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If you were to list the many movies about gasoline-huffing Web designers who get into playing with remote control airplanes right after their wives commit suicide, easily the best of the lot would be Love Liza.

And yet, in spite of the way it stands out in this crowded field, Sony Pictures has not been pimping this movie with the force they put into selling such films as Spider-Man or Lilo and Stitch or Godzilla Versus Cher.

Which is too bad, because Love Liza is easily as good as these films; it just has fewer super-powered space monsters. (No offense, Cher!) Instead, it has that most devilish of super-villains--sad feelings.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as Wilson, a man who can't bring himself to read his wife's suicide note. Sleeping on the floor outside his bedroom, Wilson spends the weeks following his wife's death dragging himself to work, driving about aimlessly and sniffing gasoline to obliterate the pain.

Shockingly, he does this without a constant musical background that forces feelings on the audience. I know that for my part, I have no idea how to feel about grief and loss unless I hear a raft of violins blaring away in a minor key, so it's nearly unbelievable that Hoffman can manage to convincingly express sorrow in scenes that are almost entirely silent.

He also isn't shot in a series of overly dramatic angles amidst needlessly showy effects. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, who is perhaps best known for the cool camera work on Menace II Society, creates a sort of peeping-tom effect, positioning the camera unobtrusively on the scene, moving it slowly, and occasionally coming in tight to examine bits of evidence, like a tuft of hair left by the dead wife, or a gas-soaked rag lying on the floor. It's all very smooth and unobtrusive, except for the scenes where Hoffman huffs the gas, which are shot in the more traditional out-of-focus guy-on-drugs style pioneered by actual drug-using filmmakers in the 1960s.

Unlike the drug-films of the '60s, though, Love Liza never makes gas-huffing seem like a good time. Instead, as Wilson gets deeper into his solvent haze, he can barely drag himself to work, and the reek of gas on his clothes leads him to make up stories about working with remote-controlled model airplanes.

Of course, this then leads him to actually buy remote-controlled model airplanes, which leads him to the community of remote-control fans. That's right, kids: Drugs do lead to harder stuff. Traveling the country with his plane stuck in the back of his car, he befriends nerdy Denny (Jack Kehler) and the two of them enjoy the hobby from their own angles; for Denny, it's the thrill of racing his RC vehicles. For Wilson, it's the equally thrilling thrill of inhaling the synthetic RC fuel.

Strangely, it turns out that huffing the gas is even worse for you than just playing with the RC toys, and Wilson descends into a more and more pathetic state, eventually spending his time lying in his empty house in his underwear with half-spilled containers of gas all around him. This, of course, is bad for his general career trajectory, and worse for his social life.

After Wilson hits bottom, he gets out a metaphorical shovel, digs a ditch, and goes deeper. It's rewarding to see a film that's not about redemption, nor is it simplistically about descent. Rather, as his life unravels, Wilson deepens as a character, and in losing everything, he at least becomes more complex.

Love Liza is a relentlessly depressing film, and it doesn't offer the standard bag of goodies to the viewer. Instead, it offers a very non-standard bag of goodies. It's something of a movie of ideas, with the twists and turns not coming in the form of plot and story, but in odd elements, like the remote control cars, or the manager of a diner who refuses to share his copy of the yellow pages. It's full of small details like this, tiny surprises that are grounded in the obsessiveness and pettiness and generosity and stupidity that make human behavior interesting.

Love Liza is a small film and will probably find a small audience. Many will be put off by the coldness of Hoffman's performance, though I think it conveys Wilson's emotional state much better than the hot and wet performances in most tear-jerkers. Others will be probably be put off by the oddness of his character and the seemingly random movement of the story, but again, these are effective ways to portray the oddness and randomness of the tragedy that Wilson is undergoing.

Still, I hope people will see it and that it will acquire the following it deserves, because I'd like to see more small films about feeling where script and character are more important than stars or effects or even plot.

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