Kristen Wiig — known for starring in and writing Bridesmaids, and for her work on Saturday Night Live — is probably one of the very brightest comedic actresses working today. That’s partly why it’s kind of strange and unsatisfying to see her play a humorless, tight-jawed cleaning lady in Hateship Loveship, even if she does so really, really well. And while it might be easy to see the film as just proof of her acting chops, there’s a little more too it than that. But not much.
Wiig’s character is an Iowan named Johanna, and she’s spent her entire adult life taking care of an elderly woman. That lady dies at the start of the film, and Johanna gets a new gig taking care of the wealthy Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Just as she walks up to their suburban mansion, she steps right into the mess in the heart of the family’s life. Problem is: Sabitha’s dad, Ken (Guy Pearce), is trying to get in his family’s good graces, but he’s addicted to drugs and broke. Moreover, he’s blamed for the accident that killed his daughter’s mother. Still, he’s got a ne’er-do-well charisma, and the reserved Johanna is instantly drawn to it.
Things get interesting when a friendly exchange of letters between Johanna and Ken is hijacked by his daughter and her clever best friend. The girls play a super-mean prank on the naive Johanna, getting her to believe that Ken fantasizes about her while drinking Chardonnay in his underwear. Having no experience with love (or email), Johanna falls for it. Like a teenager, she can’t help herself. Overcome by desire, she at one point tongue kisses a mirror. The film is at its best when it lets Wiig, as this shy woman, just swim in the internal rush of fresh romance. Her comic brilliance even shines through a little bit.
Then comes a great idea. Credit for this goes to Alice Munro, who wrote the story this film is based on. It’s taking a tragedy and running with it. Because immense humiliation befalls Johanna when she tries to realize her fairytale romance. She drops everything to go to Chicago, where she finds her prince snorting his life away on a toilet seat. An awkward period ensues, where we don’t quite know if she is still clinging to some idea of love, if she’s resigned herself to help this guy out, or if her romantic ambitions are just congealing into a quiet despair. To watch this uncertainty play out is to see the range of Wiig’s talent.
But she can’t carry the film by herself. It’s not that the rest of the acting is bad, but it just seems bland by comparison. And what the script has them do makes Hallmark cards seem thrilling, even if we do get to hear Nolte’s dump-truck-full-of-gravel voice. Then there’s pacing problem. To call Hateship Loveship a slow burn is generous. There are times when one needs to check life support. But I guess it comes down to how you watch movies. If you can love a film because it has one or two good scenes or one brilliantly executed idea, then get a ticket. But if you need something that works as a whole, look elsewhere. Perhaps the library, where you can find Munro’s book. She did, after all, win a Nobel Prize.
Hateship Loveship is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.