It is fitting that Hateship Loveship features the most awkward romantic chemistry between two lead actors of any film in 2014 (a year that has already brought us the insipid Winter’s Tale and Breathe In) since it also has one of the most awkward titles of any film in recent memory. Yes, the film’s title is abbreviated from the title of an Alice Munro short story that requires you to take a deep breath before mentioning it: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. However, what may have blossomed on the page does not quite gel in an elongated feature-length format, despite a surprisingly strong effort from a subdued Kristen Wiig.
The actress plays Johanna, a caretaker who performs her duties with the utmost care and precision, like a shier version of Anthony Hopkins’ loyal butler from The Remains of the Day. After an old lady she nannies dies, Johanna still brings her the blue dress the lady asked for and clothes her. Her next job does not require the same effort, though. A weak and raspy old man, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), wants Johanna to watch over his teenage granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld, yet to reclaim the power she had in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit). Sabitha is an independent teen with a late mother and a drug-addled father still on the road to recovery.
Her dad’s name is Ken. Guy Pearce plays him and he disappears from Sabitha’s life to go live in Chicago and continue being a deadbeat. In Chicago, Ken snorts up with an old friend, a Jennifer Jason Leigh-esque floozy addict, played by – you guessed it – Jennifer Jason Leigh. (It is hard to think of the last time Leigh did not occupy the part of a tortured, aimless, substance abuser.)
Anyway, for reasons that go unexplored, Sabitha and her catty friend Edith (Sami Gayle) decide to start up a long-distance correspondence between Ken and Johanna. (In this story world, cell phones exist conveniently attached to the hands of the teen girls and nowhere else.) They invent a fake email for Ken and then write steamy messages to Johanna. The nanny does not see through the charade and decides to abandon her post as Sabitha’s supervisor, take $21,000 in savings (and $2,000 or so worth of Ken’s antique furniture) and move in with him in Chicago.
Wiig is excellent and understated as the soft-spoken Johanna. Best known for her loopy sketch-based personas on Saturday Night Live, she represses this volume almost to a whisper here. At first, seeing Wiig meekly enter a room and not make a fuss as she scrubs a bath with no short supply of elbow grease is shocking. We expect the actor will eventually exert a look of extreme anger or frustration that any of her frantic comedic creations would give. However, she holds her own and does her best to carry Hateship Loveship on her shoulders.
Director Liza Johnson guides Wiig into repressing her comedic instincts to achieve a mannered grace. As Johanna moves from plainness into a life filled with romantic potential, Johnson adorns the protagonist’s room and wardrobe with more colour, her face with makeup and her movements with more purpose. As the romance heats up, the director brings in warmer lighting. The moments where Johanna looks dazed in love – trying on a tight-fitting emerald green dress for Ken, French kissing a mirror or looking out the window on the bus on the way to his Chicago home – show us glimpses of the erotic tension that Johanna holds underneath. Wiig shows us a flicker of this desire in her face, without overdoing it.
It does not take long for the actor to convince us that she has the chops to move past her polarizing, high-energy comedy routines. Unfortunately, it is hard to buy much of the rest of Hateship Loveship. After Breathe In, this marks the second botched romantic drama within a month where Guy Pearce lacks chemistry with his love interest and his character is a lousy romantic fit for the other woman.
Broke and battered as he fails to cut his drug habit, Pearce’s Ken has nothing to give Johanna. In return, the nanny tends to his apartment. It is an awkward pairing and not just because they are mismatched. Johanna has been the victim of a nasty trick, but is still so enamored with any man having an interest in her that she decides to be subservient to his every need. It is a imbalanced relationship that does not strengthen the protagonist at all, and Mark Poirier’s (Smart People) script forces these characters together in a clunky and entirely unconvincing fashion.
Munro, whose short stories recently earned her a Nobel Prize, was a master of intimate description, especially with the lives of plain, modest women. While Wiig give a refreshingly subtle and moving portrayal that evokes the characters from that beloved author, the rest of Hateship Loveship is awkward and dull. Munro was also a master of the interior monologue, but Poirier’s script rarely lets us enter or understand the wills and desires of the characters. Meanwhile, two subplots at home – some fighting between Sabitha and Edith and a potential love interest for McCauley with a nosy bank clerk played by Christine Lahti – feel like filler and offer little to the themes of the main plot.
As a whole, though, Hateship Loveship is a muddled adaptation, a short story that may have worked better as a short film. When Johanna redecorates Ken’s place, it is meant to serve as a metaphor for how she is remodeling their lives. The problem arises when we fear for what this potential relationship could hold for the modest, but well-meaning protagonist. There is nothing very healthy about this love story: she serves him and cleans his place, while he does nothing but steal and lie to her. It is hard to imagine the source material insisting that the best way to a man’s heart is by being completely subservient to him.
I don’t know about you, but I find it rather ironic that a film designed around a caretaker protagonist needs so much cleaning up.
Kristen Wiig’s impressively understated turn cannot save Hateship Loveship from being a tepid, unconvincing and rather offensive romance.