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Gloomy 'Love Liza' wastes good actors

LOVE LIZA — ** — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Jack Kehler, Sarah Koskoff, Stephen Tobolowsky, Erika Alexander; rated R (substance abuse, profanity, brief nudity, vulgarity); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for complete listing of local theaters.

"Love Liza" is the type of movie that plays well at film festivals (it debuted at the 2002 Sundance festival, where it took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), because its performances are solid — even spectacular. And its rather peculiar subject matter is extremely dark, which is not only in keeping with festival tradition but may be one of the understatements of the year.

However, when viewed outside of the film-festival atmosphere, this type of dour, depressing character drama looks pretty ridiculous, pointless claptrap that wastes those fine performances in service of a story that's all too predictable.

"Love Liza" refers to the late ex-wife of Web site designer Wilson Joel (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who's doing his best to cope with her suicide, which he still doesn't understand completely. To their credit, his co-workers and few friends are giving him plenty of space. And Wilson's got at least one partner in mourning, his ex-mother-in-law, Mary Ann (Kathy Bates), who's also in shock.

Still, that doesn't seem to be enough for Wilson, who discovers a letter from his late wife. For whatever reason, he's afraid to read it. Worse, for solace, he turns to substance abuse — inhaling fuel fumes, also known as "gas huffing" (it's connected in a small way to his wife's suicide).

By the time Wilson realizes he's on a self-destructive spiral, it may already be too late. He's already made a huge mistake regarding his employment situation. And he's managed to irk Mary Ann with his erratic behavior, forcing her to take matters into her own hands.

To be fair, the film is competently directed by Todd Louiso (a character actor best known for his supporting role in "High Fidelity"). However, he's working with a go-nowhere script by screenwriter Gordy Hoffman, the brother of the film's star.

Speaking of the latter Hoffman, he does makes a fairly compelling lead. But his performance is far better than this material deserves. Same goes for Bates, whose character is particularly one-note and unsympathetic.

"Love Liza" is rated R for scenes of simulated substance abuse (fuel and other propellant fumes, inhaled), occasional use of strong sex-related profanity and some sexual slang terms, as well as some brief glimpses of full female nudity. Running time: 90 minutes.