It’s a common tendency for comic actors to stretch themselves by starring in dramas—often ones in which they play decidedly unfunny (and also unhappy) people. Will Ferrell appeared in Everything Must Go and Stranger Than Fiction, and Will Forte will be in Alexander Payne’s forthcoming comedy-drama Nebraska. Another Saturday Night Live alum, Kristen Wiig, now joins their ranks with Hateship Loveship, a brittle character piece that inspires neither hate nor love but does ask you to embrace Wiig’s severely monotone acting choices as the film’s heroine. She doesn’t make any jokes and barely cracks a smile. Unfortunately, the movie (and her performance) proves to be a misfire—a quirky, intriguing one, but a misfire all the same.
Based on an Alice Munro short story, Hateship Loveship stars Wiig as Johanna, a personal caregiver whose latest gig takes her into the orbit of the discontent McCauley family. Hormonal teen Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) recently lost her mother in an accident, and ever since she’s been living with her grandfather (Nick Nolte). Her failure of a father, Ken (Guy Pearce), has spent some time in jail and is generally a mess, battling drug addiction and trying to find a job.
Johanna is to take care of Sabitha, and her attitude is that the family skeletons—including the circumstances surrounding the mother’s death—aren’t her concern. Emotionally sheltered, almost childlike, Johanna does take an interest in Ken, who writes her a harmless letter thanking her for watching his daughter. Believing he’s a safe person with whom to open up, she writes back a long, personal response, asking Sabitha and her best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), to mail it for her. Instead, the mean girls send her a fake letter from Ken, starting a bogus correspondence that will trick Johanna into thinking that there’s a romantic spark between the two adults.
Director Liza Johnson doesn’t reveal a lot about Johanna’s past, but what we learn is that this woman has always been happier looking after others—it’s as if she doesn’t have any feelings of her own. Johanna is an extreme character, but Wiig has a hard time softening those extremes or selling them outright. More often than not, Wiig’s performance feels like a construction—a straight-faced spin on the sort of character she would have played for laughs on SNL. On that show, Wiig revealed a talent for surreal roles, but those had a wit or edge to them. Johanna intentionally doesn’t have those qualities, and the movie struggles to be compelling when its center is so negligible.
Still, if you’re willing to be patient, Hateship Loveship does eventually pull itself out of its depressive inertia, as Johanna decides to act on her misguided belief that she and Ken are in love, resulting in a major shift in the family’s dynamics. Johnson and Wiig overemphasize Johanna’s mouse-like qualities, but they don’t mock her. The film does eventually reach an unexpected emotional moment, one that’s all the more affecting because it’s so soft-spoken yet so resonant.
While Wiig flails in her portrayal, she’s surrounded by a cast that’s all-pro. Pearce sensitively plays a screw-up who can’t quite figure out what to make of this adoring, nurturing oddity of a woman who’s inserted herself into his pitiful life. Nolte is gruff and tender in equal measure, and Christine Lahti is a welcome addition as a surprise love interest. These veterans have a command that’s so casual and assured that it makes Wiig’s straining more noticeable. Give her credit for stretching, but then hope she can find some better material for her ambitions soon.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Liza Johnson
Writers: Mark Poirier (screenplay); Alice Munro (short story)
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Nolte, Christine Lahti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sami Gayle
Release Date: Screening at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival