Return to sender
In Love Liza, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Wilson Joel, a computer programmer whose wife, Liza, has committed suicide inexplicably. His grief isolates him. At work, he walks around in a bubble. When someone tells a mildly amusing story at lunch, he laughs too loud, too long, too hysterically; his co-workers cringe and squirm and finally slink away, pretending they have something important to do. At home, he mopes around the house and sleeps on the floor in the hallway because he can’t face the bed he and Liza used to share.
Because he can’t face the bed, it takes him several days to find the note Liza left under his pillow. He picks the envelope up and stares at it slack-jawed, as if his brain can’t quite decode what his eyes tell it. Finally, the connection clicks. “She left me a note,” he says, but even talking to himself seems to be more effort than it’s worth; the line comes out, “Shilleff minnote.”
Wilson is no more able to face Liza’s suicide note than he was their bed. He carries the note around with him—a talisman, a relic that he can’t bear to lose. Yet, he can’t bring himself to open it, for fear that he’ll learn he did something to drive Liza to kill herself.
When he mentions the note to his mother-in-law Mary Ann (Kathy Bates), she begins pressuring him to open the letter, so she can find out what it says.
Instead, Wilson retreats even further. He becomes addicted to sniffing gasoline fumes. Then, when he has to scramble for an alibi—if “scramble” isn’t too muscular a word for what Wilson does in his woozy stupor,—he claims he’s buying the gas for a remote-control model airplane. When his boss’s brother-in-law Denny (Jack Kehler) contacts him about what he thinks is their shared hobby, Wilson has to buy a model plane and feign interest. In time, the feigned interest becomes genuine—well, as much as any interest can penetrate his fog of grief, guilt and gasoline.
Love Liza was written by Gordy Hoffman, actor Philip’s older brother. If we didn’t know that, we might not guess. But knowing it makes it tempting to imagine that the script shows a brother’s instinctive understanding of what his sibling does best. Wilson Joel is like a wounded steer, alternately staring blankly and howling impotently at a hostile universe he can’t quite comprehend; he’s almost, but not quite, blind to what’s going on around him.
At the same time, the script never even comes close to resolving any of the issues it raises. Never mind resolving issues—Gordy doesn’t even develop them. He’ll write his way up to something and then turn aside, cut away or just drop it and move on to something else. He gives us fragments of scenes, jottings instead of whole ideas. On a trip to the zoo, Wilson’s boss Maura (Sarah Koskoff) makes a sweetly clumsy overture to him—“This is totally inappropriate … but I’m attracted to you”— and he stalks away in a panic. But then what? We don’t know, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Gordy and director Todd Louiso don’t know either. We get no sense of where the scene is heading; Gordy and Louiso simply decide to change the subject. For that matter, never mind where the scene is going—we never even get a sense of where it comes from.
We don’t know why Maura is attracted to Wilson. We don’t know why much of anything happens in Love Liza; the film becomes an inkblot in which we are encouraged to see whatever we want to see. It’s not hard to guess that there’s no “Rosebud” here; if Wilson ever does open that letter and read it, we know better than to expect an explanation of why Liza killed herself. (By the time the film is half over, we’re beginning to wonder why she married him in the first place.)
We get no sense of Liza’s character, but she’s not really important. She’s only what Hitchcock called the maguffin: the gimmick that sets things rolling, the framework on which Gordy can hang all the things his brother Philip does best.