At the center of Hateship Loveship, a new film adapted from the title story in Alice Munro’s collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, is a single lonely woman played by the actress Kristen Wiig. Wiig, who until a recent string of lead roles in indie films seemingly engineered to rebrand her as a versatile dramatic actress, gained national attention as one of the standout sketch performers on Saturday Night Live, where her seemingly endless wheelhouse of oddball and freakshow characters made her among the most identifiable actors to retire from the program, as she did in 2012.
Previously, she made an impression in small roles, as a passive-aggressive producer of Katherine Heigl’s Entertainment Tonight-style program in Knocked Up, and had a breakout film success in co-writing and starring in 2011’s Bridesmaids, still without a sequel presumably because the executives who greenlit it were embarrassed such a woman-centric film made any money at all.
The history of Wiig as a performer does not just prompt the question, “Why turn to drama?”, rather, it necessarily informs any critique of her dramatic performances. The few moments in Hateship Loveship where her Johanna flashes into individual existence are straight out of the SNL-era Wiig wheelhouse. Overcome by fantasies of Guy Pearce’s Ken, she pauses while cleaning a mirror to practice her French technique on the reflection. Later, when attempting to enter a character’s locked residence, she clambers over a trash dumpster and shimmies horizontally through a tiny window, a surprising bit of deft physical comedy in an otherwise tense and sad sequence.
Johanna enters the film as a caretaker and housekeeper, one who moves on to the home of Ken’s father-in-law Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and daughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) when an elderly employer passes away. Established as a meek and interior personality, the shot of McCauley and his family as they meet Johanna is one of the film’s most distinctive. Sabitha points out the housekeeper’s arrival as she approaches slowly from the sidewalk, and the film cuts to a close-up of McCauley as he swings along with the camera to look at her. In the corner of the frame, stepping slightly backward in discomfort, Wiig’s Johanna seems for he first time to be occupying her natural place onscreen.
Insofar as Alice Munro’s stories require plot, they may focus on as little as a single individual’s action and its ramifications, even the ones that cover as long a timeline as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. In the film it’s a mean-spirited teenager’s prank, one thought up by Sabitha’s friend Edith (Sami Gayle). The two teens first intercept a letter of Johanna’s responding to Ken’s brief note of thanks for her work, left before he departed to live his own life away from his daughter and lingering guilt about the death of her mother. They write back as Ken at first, then continue over e-mail, professing love for Johanna and leading her into a cruel fantasy.
Inevitably, the ruse is found out, and one of the best decisions made by screenwriter Mark Poirier is that this turn comes early, a little less than halfway through. But once the schadenfreude of watching Wiig clap a hand to her mouth while reading e-mails at a local library computer has gone away, the viewer’s subsequent engagement with the story lives or dies on Wiig’s performance, which sorely lacks the inner life necessary to make Johanna a character capable of enacting positive change on those around her.
The comic beats in the performance stand out all the more because they are spikes in a familiar rhythm that Wiig is playing. The scenes of Johanna intruding on Sabitha’s teenage tryst and standing in silence, of coming home in a new dress and shrinking from attention, are not played with any mannerisms or sense of history. This is a sketch character that Wiig plays with not shyness but deadpan. It seems equally likely that Johanna has intruded on the fumbling teenagers to either check on them or strangle them and hide their bodies. Just how damaged is Johanna; and, more importantly, why and what does she want? We get a sense later, once the script intervenes, but the performance gives us only an impression that the character has been marginalized for good reason.
Saving graces abound in the supporting cast: Nolte, whose familiar growl stays largely in check until, adorably, he plays drunk at a dinner scene with an old friend and potential paramour played by the great Christine Lahti. Steinfeld, who looked too old for her part by design in True Grit, is now convincingly playing high schoolers she’s far too tall for. Jennifer Jason Leigh is effective in quick scenes as Ken’s junkie live-in who sizes Johanna up better than any other character; she has a malevolent, lizard intelligence behind her black eyes. Pearce, one of his generation’s best leading men, has long seemed happy with the career of a character actor, a legacy which he extends into this film.
This is perhaps the apex of that mode, in which he plays a desperately fumbling man who might never get it together but has such an endearing, hangdog look that you believe he does want to. With the right woman he just might—I’m not sure she’s in this movie.
The IFC Films home release of Hateship Loveship comes with only the film’s theatrical trailer; no further commentaries or features are included.