certain actors ought to be care-ful about taking roles that play directly to their strengths.Philip Seymour Hoffman has a gift for conveying sweaty emotional desperation. In films like Boogie Nights and Happiness, he's inclined to turn into a big, blobby puddle -- hell, lake -- of self-loathing and need. You squirm watching him, because his performances are so exact and true.
Call it perversity, but my favourite Hoffman performances are those that go against his grain. I like his tiny part as a pushy young craps shooter in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight (aka Sydney), his strange improvised turn as the political activist who abandons Hope Davis in Next Stop Wonderland and his Freddy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, where he gives us a rich boy grown into a petulant man whose arrogance overlies a sense of inadequacy.
In Love Liza, a hit from last year's Sundance Festival written by his brother and directed by actor Todd Louiso, Hoffman has a part so perfect for him that you hardly know where to look. He plays Wilson, a software designer whose wife has committed suicide and who has turned to inhaling gasoline fumes to find oblivion.
He's really good in the role. It's tailored to his strength, or rather, his talent for weakness. Wilson can't bring himself to open his wife's suicide note, can't deal with his life, especially can't cope with his mother-in-law, played by Kathy Bates as a guilt-seeking missile. No wonder he runs away from home and any threat of emotional entanglement.
Everyone's terribly solicitous, their kindness demanding a piece of his remaining sanity as a token of their own goodness. Hoffman's made this character -- at once furtive about what his life has become and unable to stop justifying himself to strangers -- an emotional trainwreck.
I think less of the direction. Louiso and his cinematographer, Lisa Rinzler (Pollock), have an alarming habit of treating focus as a sometime thing. I understand what they're doing with it, trying to suggest Wilson's blurred emotionality, particularly when he's huffed up on fumes. But more often it seems like they're trying to induce eyestrain, a hallucinatory state this viewer could live without.
LOVE LIZA directed by Todd Louiso, written by Gordon Hoffman, produced by Ruth Charny and Chris Hanley, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Jack Kehler and Sarah Koskoff. 90 minutes. A Sony Classics release through Mongrel Media. Opens Friday (January 24). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NNN