Grief and gasoline are the essential elements in Todd Louiso’s debut feature, a heartfelt misfire about a man traumatized by the suicide of his wife. Dumpy, dweebish Wilson Joel (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a computer geek whose devastation following the sudden, unexplained death of his beloved Liza puts him into a psychological tailspin that costs him his job as a website designer; even his sympathetic mother-in-law Mary Ann (Kathy Bates) proves unable to help. In his descent Wilson falls into two related obsessions. One is remote-controlled model airplanes, an interest which takes hold of him when he goes off on an aimless journey that eventually links him up with Denny (Jack Kehler), an oddball neighbor who’s also an enthusiast. The other is–believe it or not–an addiction to sniffing gas, which ultimately consumes him, destroys all chance for him to retrieve his career and undermines his relationship with Mary Ann. A further source of strain is the fact that Wilson has found a sealed suicide note from Liza which, to her mother’s distress, he’s unable to open. The dramatic assumption is that learning its contents will finally give him catharsis and closure.

The script by Gordy Hoffman, the star’s brother, is not so much a narrative as an episodic character study. The strength of this approach is that the picture is unpredictable; the choices Wilson makes are so far out of left field that it’s impossible to foresee the twists. The weakness, on the other hand, is that the psychological journey he takes seems arbitrary and almost perversely quirky. Individual moments are certainly fascinating, and the overall effect isn’t without interest, but as a whole the piece comes across as rather precious and haphazard.

One element of it, however, is totally extraordinary, and that’s Hoffman’s amazing performance. He’s always been a superlative actor, but he really outdoes himself here, drawing an astonishingly convincing portrait of a man at the absolute end of his emotional rope. What the script leaves largely unspoken, he creates virtually from scratch, expressing a level of despair so complete and so persuasive that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him; it’s a totally fearless turn in which Hoffman exposes himself so fully–both emotionally and physically–that the result is wrenching. None of the other cast members approach him. Bates is sound, but except for a single instance in which her anger at the loss of her daughter suddenly flares, her work is more solid than imaginative. Kehler’s eccentricity seems too broad, and Stephen Tobolowsky is overly unctuous as a prospective employer who’s curiously supportive of Wilson.

On the technical side, “Love Liza” is adequate, though the gritty appearance of Lisa Rinzler’s cinematography gets somewhat tiresome and the depiction of Wilson’s more fanciful flights is a trifle pedestrian. In the final analysis the film offers a journey that’s too random and inconclusive to be compelling, but which Hoffman’s brilliance almost makes worth taking.