Wilson Joel (Hoffman) is bereft. His wife Liza has killed herself just prior to the start of the film. We never see Liza. All we know of her is what we learn through the eyes of her grieving spouse, who is mystified and confused by his wife’s sudden suicide. Were his journey not so singular, Wilson’s mourning process might be a Kübler-Ross case study on the stages of grief. But this story (written by Hoffman’s brother Gordy Hoffman, who received Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the script) is anything but textbook. And here’s where viewers might disagree. Some, like me, will find Wilson’s emotional descent into the diversionary activities of gasoline-huffing and remote-controlled-airplane competition compelling stuff; others will come away greatly irritated by the senselessness of this widower’s behavior, as baffled and irritated with Wilson as they are with this film, which provides us with no reasons or solutions. The effect is like the cavernous emptiness that the survivors of suicide victims often feel, the left-behind, left-out, left-in-the-cold feeling that uncomprehending loved ones must endure. How could we not know? How could we not see this coming? Wilson believes that he and Liza had been happy together, but if she committed suicide what does that indicate about the veracity of his perceptions, memories, and foundation? This must be what Wilson is thinking when he discovers the note Liza left for him underneath their bedroom pillows. Instead of opening it, Wilson pockets the envelope, unread, and proceeds to carry it with him throughout the rest of the movie – much to the consternation of his also-grieving mother-in-law, Mary Ann (Bates). If Liza’s suicide hadn’t shattered Wilson enough already, whatever her suicide note might reveal about her reasons for taking her life could be the final nail in his proverbial coffin. Maybe then, he would not even be able to carry with him his memory of what he believes to have been a perfect union. Wilson throws himself back into work, takes a vacation, tries all the prescribed remedies for grief. Then he tries gasoline huffing. It affords him the oblivion he is looking for, and ironically, also a reason to go on living. It’s not only an escape but also something into which he can now throw himself, body and soul. That’s where the model airplanes come into the picture. They’re merely props for the fuel he covets. "I love remote control," he bellows while behaving at his most outré at an airplane race. Hoffman is the body and soul of Love Liza
. Appearing in almost every frame of the movie, Hoffman delivers a tour-de-force performance that is packed with almost as much humor as sadness. Addled by the vapors and his grief, Wilson expresses a wide range of emotions, all perfectly modulated through Hoffman’s adroit physical expression and spontaneous instincts. He is also surrounded by a small but extraordinary cast, starting with Kathy Bates as Liza’s devastated mother and Stephen Tobolowsky (the hardest-working character actor in show business) as the solicitous, but only to a reasonable point, employer who tries to re-engage Wilson’s former verve for his work. Love Liza
will not be liked by everyone. Its subject matter and disavowal of resolution will be a turnoff to others. Me, I’ve now seen the movie three times and I’ve laughed and I’ve cried. It comes the closest to any movie experience I’ve had in re-creating the aftermath of unexplained suicide. Sometimes there just aren’t any answers.