Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ; Love Liza

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Love Liza
Directed by Todd Louiso

In a prerelease interview about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the filmís first-time director, George Clooney, confessed that heíd gone a little crazy with the filmís design. "The knock on me will be that itís over-directed," he predicted. Heís right: by and large, that has been the knock against this exceedingly odd film, a showbiz fantasia about tv mogul Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), who claimed in a same-titled autobiography that he took time off from producing The Dating Game and The Gong Show to commit murders for the CIA.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, editor Stephen Mirrione and production designer James D. Bissell pull off extraordinary visual effects; some of them suggest the movie-as-diorama approach perfected by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and charmingly imitated by Wes Anderson. At times, you feel as though youíre watching a rich old bad boyís movie version of a toy chestóa shimmering Pandoraís box of sexual hunger, Jewish guilt, showbiz cynicism and mourning for lost innocence. And the cast is full of talented actors stretching themselves; Sam Rockwell is likably weaselly as Barris, Drew Barrymore is characteristically fetching as his hippie wife, Clooney pulls off an hilariously humorless supporting part as Barrisí CIA contact and Julia Roberts does a dandy wisecracking-dame routine in her few scenes as a femme fatale agent.

Barrisí hitman claims are patently ludicrous, of course; nobody really ever questioned them because nobody believed them to begin with. This movie, like its source, doesnít bother begging credulity. It just presents each wacky Barris claim as an intricately directed tableau (some of the sequences involve tricky superimpositions and theatrical sets that mimic a split-screen effect) and piles one demented black comic gag on top of another.

Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Americaís most original and unsympathetic screenwriter) seem to want us to accept this wild account of Barrisí life at face value, then second-guess the motives behind it. Okay, Iíll bite: As near as I can tell from Charlie Kaufmanís script, Barris, a clever and maybe brilliant entertainer, made up this CIA baloney because he knew his tv shows were stupid, trivial and corrupt and felt guilty for getting so rich doing them. Therefore, his fantasy life as a killer of men is a metaphor for his real career as a killer of pop culture standards. Thatís not a bad premise (if, indeed, itís the one Clooney and Kaufman intended), but itís one for a Salon article, not a feature film. About 30 minutes into this expertly crafted, very strange comedy, you wonder what the point is; 75 minutes after that, youíre still wondering.

Iím all in favor of ace character actors creating opportunities for themselves to carry a whole movie in a lead role. But Iím not sure why Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of American cinemaís oddest, most original and honest actors, thought Love Liza was the ideal venue in which to make a similar jump. Maybe the comforts of familiarity tipped the balance: this comedy/drama/road movie was written by Hoffmanís brother, Gordy, and directed by their mutual friend Todd Louiso, and it trades on what unfortunately has become Hoffmanís typecast specialty, the alienated, pathetic, emotionally opaque loner.

As the filmís hero, Wilson, a digital-media schlub whose wife committed suicide, Hoffman spends much of the film in either a funk or a snit. Heís usually alone in a car or in his house, moping or screaming or huffing model airplane fuel, eventually developing an addiction that ruins his job and most of his significant relationships. There isnít much modulation of tone, however; Louiso seems to be good at two modes, hushed lyrical weirdness and raw grating misery. The movie never finds a way to bring us inside Wilsonís grief, or else decided it would rather not go there for fear of being accused of pandering. Thatís unfortunate; Iím all for making the audience work for its satisfactions, but Iím not convinced that a viewer who endures Love Liza will be rewarded with insights worth his or her time. Itís a closed-off drama about a closed-off man whose decaying emotional and intellectual life we cannot begin to comprehend, much less mourn.

Granted, when a filmís subject is the grieving process, you expect to see a certain amount of suffering, self-destruction and random, weird behavior. But when you see what Jack Nicholson and filmmakers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor were able to do with similar material in About Schmidtómaking room for workplace satire, father-daughter resentment and critiques of modern capitalism, age discrimination and Middle American ritualsóLove Liza practically fades from the screen as youíre watching it.

I realize thatís not a fair comparisonóNicholson and Payne are much bigger, more powerful fish than the minnows that made Love Liza, and itís only a fluke of release scheduling that brought them into theaters around the same timeóbut itís a comparison that cannot help being made, and it happens to be an instructive one. Nicholsonís Schmidt is no more emotionally accessible than Hoffmanís Wilsonóin fact, heís far less outwardly expressive, and unlike Wilson, when he acts like a jerk, itís often on purposeóbut somehow his character becomes transparent, and the differences between him and the viewer melt away, allowing empathy and identification to create a bond between performer and audience. Nicholson and the filmmakers donít just let you see the man Schmidt is; they let you see the man he was, and intuitively guess how he traveled from one place to another, and these guesses inspire you to consider your own choices, your own life. Itís a road movie with a true emotional journey at its heart; Love Liza, in comparison, puts Wilson on the road en route to model airplane conventions (an obsession he develops after his wifeís death), but doesnít really let him go anyplace emotionally. He doesnít connect with anyone he meets, from the gas-huffing teenagers who frequent a gas station near his house, to the model airplane aficionados whose rituals he ignores and disrupts, to his dead wifeís alternately exasperated and exasperating mother (Kathy Bates, whoís good despite being stuck in a variation of her grating in-law part from About Schmidt). Itís like a zoo with people.

Lisa Rinzlerís cinematography has some of the ragged luminous beauty of a 70s character drama (the dark, medium-distance shots of Wilson grieving are poignant), but the script and performances arenít as subtle. Watching Love Liza is like being stuck on a bus hearing a sad story told by a guy who doesnít know whatís interesting and whatís not, and who smells funny. Even though you feel for the guy, youíre still looking around for empty seats.

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