For his feature-director debut, Todd Louiso made a film as quietly eccentric as his most well-known character. Like High Fidelity’s painfully shy, Belle and Sebastian-loving Dick, Love Liza is barely there, a wisp that has its share of awkward moments but usually flits through your subconscious agreeably enough—which is an achievement, given that it’s a movie about suicide.
The aftermath of a suicide, actually. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Wilson, the husband of the title character, who has recently asphyxiated herself in their garage. The film opens without a sound as he arrives at his house after the funeral, hesitating to enter and staring as if he’d never been there—or never wanted to be there again. The true focus of Liza, Wilson bounces off the film’s lesser characters but remains stubbornly autonomous as he tries to feel out what he needs to weather the tragedy.
Wilson returns to work immediately, but his odd behavior around the office (an uncomfortable scene shows him laughing way too long and hard at a co-worker’s mildly funny story) prompts his boss, Maura (Sarah Koskoff), to gently suggest that he take some time off. Wilson’s career as a Web designer is seemingly one thing he doesn’t have to worry about: Not only does he have the support of his present associates, but a lucrative new project awaits with Tom Bailey (Steven Tobolowsky), a Bill Gates type so impressed with Wilson’s work that he gives him an open-ended amount of time to recuperate. Wilson also develops a together-in-mourning friendship with Liza’s mother, Mary Ann (a crew-cut Kathy Bates), though their relationship becomes strained when Wilson finds a letter from Liza addressed to him and puts off opening it, against Mary Ann’s objection.
You might expect to see Wilson hunched over a bottle at some point during his mourning—after all, getting drunk equals trying to cope just as smoking proves hipness in most movies—but scriptwriter Gordy Hoffman (Philip’s brother) has him turn instead to sniffing gasoline. This embarrassing crutch is the driving force behind Liza: Wilson needs to negotiate frequent gas-can purchases with a station manager who is used to seeing kids getting high at the pumps, and when a disgustingly smitten Maura checks in on him at home and smells gasoline, he tells her that he flies model planes—a white lie that ends up turning into Wilson’s temporary salvation when Maura encourages her brother, Denny (Jack Kehler), a true radio-control enthusiast, to call Wilson and ask to see his model. Instead of making up an excuse, Wilson goes out to buy a plane and, with frequent bouts of huffing, tolerates Denny’s visit. Later, when Maura straight-up makes a pass at him, Wilson snaps, ditching his semblance of back-to-normal living to take to the road and throw himself into the radio-control subculture he’s stumbled upon for want of anything better to distract himself with.
Hoffman makes Wilson a likable if familiar wretch, descending from hunched, 25th Hour-esque sad sack to full-out Boogie Nights-worthy loser. As his character travels further into the bliss-ignorance shaped by his addiction and an almost antisocial compulsion not to care what he says or does around others, Hoffman tosses off inappropriate comments with a near-cheeriness that belies Wilson’s inner turmoil. When he takes a forbidden dip in a pond full of remote-control racing boats at a hobbyists’ gathering, it plays out as a moment of pure, escapist joy: With Jim O’Rourke’s gentle, airy guitar score framing his swim, Wilson keeps an oblivious grin on his face, delighting in the water and early-morning sun as race participants yell at him from the shore. Wilson, of course, is a wreck, but Hoffman holds all his grief in blank, bleary-eyed expressions, making his woundedness more subtle than pitiful.
Liza’s real escape from heavy-handedness, it turns out, is Denny. Though the buglike Kehler makes him a perfectly irritating man-child for the film’s first half, the character undergoes a shift during Wilson’s midmovie swim: When Wilson finally gets out of the water and the group’s leaders call for his removal, Denny wraps him up in a towel and tells everyone he’s good to stay, eventually blurting, “This guy’s wife just killed herself, OK? She blew her head off, OK?” Much to Kehler’s credit—as well as to Louiso’s and Gordy Hoffman’s—this predictable transformation from annoying acquaintance to needed friend comes off beautifully. And the subsequent interplay between Denny and Wilson goes a long way toward leavening Liza’s somberness, especially after Denny finds out about the letter and a succession of scenes has him proffering advice, ranging from “I sure as hell wouldn’t open it” to “You shouldn’t open it here. You should open it with some candles, you know? And a dog…or a priest!”
Liza herself, meanwhile, is the lowest-key part of this consistently low-key movie, appearing infrequently in pictures and once as a fuzzy hallucination during one of Wilson’s gas binges. This is also the only time we see tears on Wilson’s face; except for a couple of tension-relieving shouting matches between Wilson and Mary Ann, Louiso wisely keeps the melodrama scarce.
Though there’s no chance Deliver Us From Eva will float away, there’s always hope that it will sink quickly to the bottom of the discount-video bin and disappear. As for the film’s namesake, well, the good news is that Eva is purely fictional, nothing more than a product of lazy imaginations. It’s not unusual for a purported romantic comedy to turn a character into caricature, of course, but Deliver Us’ central nemesis is held together without a single stitch of reality and shaped by forces laughably chauvinistic, borderline offensive, and just plain stupid.
The gist of the movie is that Eva (Gabrielle Union), the sole remaining single of the four trophy Dandridge sisters, is a hardass with Svengali-like control over her siblings’ lives. (“Eva is very intelligent,” we hear each time a sister makes a life-changing decision based on Eva’s advice, which happens about every five minutes.) The sisters’ husbands/boyfriends are tired of Eva’s scowling, disapproving presence—if you’ve ever met a woman this unbelievably abrasive, who responds to even petty situations with a righteous lecture, you’ll understand—and their plan is to make her fall in love with someone who will lure her away. Preferably out of state.
Ray (LL Cool J), or Raymond, as the charming Eva insists on calling him, succeeds in wooing her. From the moment of their introduction, Deliver Us From Eva proceeds like a Hall of Shame episode of Blind Date: Eva plays the spurned wench whose anger is evident from the first hello; Ray acts the supersmooth stud whose ridiculous lines and car-ride serenades are slimily overdone and unattractive. Why they end up liking each other is unclear—as well as one of the movie’s fatal flaws. Another—and this one’s a doozy—is the subtext of Eva and Ray’s courtship: As one date leads to another, Eva turns into a fun-loving hoochie, suggesting that all a rigid woman needs, after all, is a little lovin’. (Unsurprising factoid: All of Deliver Us From Eva’s creators are men.)
The final nail in the coffin, quite literally, is foreshadowed from the opening scene, in which Ray addresses the audience from beyond the grave. You’ll naturally wonder how he meets his end; you’ll be exasperated to discover that it has something to do with a prank contrived to drive a genuinely smitten Eva to accept an out-of-town
promotion. For a movie to ask the audience to suspend disbelief during its allegedly playful shenanigans is expected. But for Deliver Us From Eva to succeed, moviegoers will also have to leave their brains, ethics, and respect for humanity at the door. CP