After the popularity of 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, a slew of films came out that, for lack of a better term, dealt with “White People Problems.” As the term implies, most of these movies were about middle to upper middle class people who struggled to deal with such problems as divorce, missed life opportunities, death, depression, and the sort of problems that stand-up comedians typically talk about. Obviously, the issues I’ve listed are not exclusive to white people, but what set these films apart was in how the characters dealt with these problems and, yes, some of these issues are ones that quite honestly, only well-to-do white people worry about. At the time, it was refreshing to see movies deal with a subject matter that had not been dealt with in a long time and in such an honest manner. I believe the popularity of these themes reflected the economic prosperity enjoyed by so many Americans in the late 90s to mid-00s (despite the bursting of the tech bubble). Financially well-off, Americans began to focus their problems on other, quality of life type of issues.

LOVE LIZA is one of these movies and it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman. As you can tell from my recent review of CAPOTE, I am a huge Hoffman fan and I would be loathe to ever call this actor overrated or untalented. And fortunately, I won’t have to blame Hoffman for how disappointing LOVE LIZA is. The blame for that film can be pointed to everything else about it. This film is about a web designer (Hoffman) who unsuccessfully tries to deal with his wife’s suicide. During his struggle, other people, including his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates) try to help him, but to no avail.

As usual, Hoffman is just great here. Despite the fact he’s saddled with such a weak script, he molds an intriguing individual out of the character. You don’t sympathize with him (or at least I didn’t) even though what he has just gone through is beyond horrible. However, you remain engaged by his unpredictable antics. The script was written by Hoffman’s brother, Gordy Hoffman (who now teaches screenwriting at USC) and I suspect that Philip Seymour had a huge hand in developing the character because so much of the character seems to require a trained actor’s insight and improvisation. Kathy Bates is also fantastic, especially in one particular scene where she goes off on Hoffman’s lady co-worker. She plays the mother-in-law whose daughter killed herself. However, as much as I liked Bates’ performance, I don’t think she displayed the right amount of grief that most mothers would over losing their daughter, especially by suicide. There is one brief moment where Bates begins to show emotion, but that is all we get. In the remainder of her performance, she seems to act like she was never related to Hoffman’s wife and she’s simply sympathizing with him over his loss. In fact, I think her performance would have been far more convincing if she had played Hoffman’s mother because her lack of outward emotion would have been more believable.

As I said before, the problems with LOVE LIZA lie with everything besides the performances. A lot of what Hoffman does in dealing with his wife’s death is simply weird and unbelievable. Its as if the writer wanted to avoid writing what most people probably experience when something like this happens to them. That’s fine. I get that you would want to present mourning in an original way, but it should make some sense. Many of the things that Hoffman does to deal with his wife’s death make absolutely no sense and, as a result, the script seems to create random events for the character for the sake of just being random and somehow hip. Because you know, that’s being indie. For example, Hoffman’s character decides to become a model airplane hobbyist. Why? I get the gasoline-sniffing habit because that numbs the pain and all. But model planes? There are also a few scenes where Hoffman displays other strange behavior that isn’t linked with the rest of his strange behavior. In one scene, he and his friend are visiting the zoo and he asks whether an animal display is going to open later that day. When he’s told it won’t, he’s beside himself as to why it won’t. Nothing that happens before this scene in the movie sets this behavior up and so, again, it comes off as disjointed.

There’s some beautiful camera work in the film and the location choices of Alabama and Louisiana lend an added backwater, rusty Americana beauty to it all. The director Todd Louiso does a good job in separating Hoffman and his grief from the rest of the world. It’s a lot like how you feel when a loved one has passed away and everything that is familiar around you suddenly feels unfamiliar. The director is able to convey the same here. I also admired the fact that even though a potential love interest is introduced in the movie, the story doesn’t end up getting Hoffman and the girl together. Its so refreshing to see this in movies and in those rare occasions when it happens, it should be noted.

LOVE LIZA is an actor’s showcase. It’s an opportunity for Hoffman to stretch forth his acting skills and place a huge spotlight on himself. For those of us who like Hoffman, like me, that’s ok. However, its obviously not enough to make for a good movie. By the end of the film, I didn’t get a better understanding of the character than I did at the beginning of the film. The movie limits itself to a very limited scope and because of it, it fails to make any impression on you.