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A whiff of mediocrity

Hoffman can't salvage 'Love Liza'

In recent years, Philip Seymour Hoffman has become such a familiar and welcome face in a variety of supporting roles (most recently '25th Hour,' 'Red Dragon' and 'Punch-Drunk Love') that when you hear he's finally starring in a film you think, 'It's about time.'

Then you see 'Love Liza,' and as the last of its 90 trying minutes arrives, you think, 'It's about time!'

Not that Hoffman is bad. In fact, he gives quite a performance. The thing is, you are always aware that it's a performance. The role he's playing is just something written to be acted, never a person you believe in.

The role is that of Wilson Joel, a Web designer who has been traumatized by the suicide of his wife, Liza Ñ or perhaps only confused by the fact that he seems to have a last name for a first name and a first name for a last.

Anyway, the distraught Joel numbs himself by sniffing gasoline fumes (seemingly because Liza died of carbon monoxide poisoning), and before long he becomes a flat-out, glassy-eyed huff daddy. His house reeks enough that when an attractive and attracted co-worker stops by to look in on him, he tells her he's assembling a model airplane.

As fate Ñ but mostly the scriptwriter, Hoffman's brother Gordy Ñ would have it, the concerned colleague tells an actual model-airplane buff about Joel, who then has to come up with a model airplane to show the guy. Conveniently, the model fuel gives good fume, providing Joel with a less conspicuous source of huffin' stuff.

Joel is introduced to a local subculture of model enthusiasts. He joyously disrupts a model boat race by taking a liberating jump in the lake. He generously gasses up a pair of suburban urchins who have been rousted from the local service station for huffing from the pumps. He pulls himself together long enough to get a promising job.

All the while, he carries around an unopened letter that Liza left him. You'd think he would open it just to sniff the glue residue on the flap. When he finally does read it, Liza sounds just as mentally defective as most everyone else in the film (including Kathy Bates as Joel's mother-in-law).

We might easily be forgiven for thinking we're watching tryouts for a summer stock production of 'Rain Man.' What we're seeing is a form of thespian autism induced by the script and by the direction of Hoffman's pal Todd Louiso, who is himself an actor and thus inclined to indulge material that would be more at home in a workshop context.

It might have helped to know something of what Joel was like before the tragedy, but in truth, Joel didn't exist before that. He's a construction, a technical demonstration, like the entire movie's contrived and artificial sense of reality. We are always aware of how written everything is. Whatever happens, happens simply because it's scripted that way.

'Love Liza' is the kind of independent film that constantly, tediously proclaims its indie-ness, from its human scale to its edgy premise to its ironic-hip music. In the end, all you're left with is a question of what's worse: huffing unleaded or passing artistic gas like this.