Following the smash success of "Bridesmaids," Kristen Wiig has actively subverted the obvious expectations of the career choices that would follow a hit film. Aside from this winter's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," the actress has largely gravitated toward small-scale projects ("Girl Most Likely," "Friends With Kids"), in roles that still fit within her wheelhouse, but also allow an opportunity for Wiig to exercise the kind of acting chops that more mainstream fare doesn't afford very often. But "Hateship Loveship" is Wiig's most atypical role and turn to date, leading an ensemble cast in a drama about a family adrift in the wake of death, and the one woman who manages to keep them from completely splitting apart.
You probably wouldn't notice Johanna (Wiig) at first glance...and likely not on the second or third either. Quiet and reserved, her work as a caregiver is arranged by a pastor, and her formless, nearly old fashioned attire suggests she's spent more time looking over others than experiencing life for herself. But that changes when her next job takes her into the home of the elderly Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), who needs a hand caring for his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), the offspring of his resented, recovering junkie son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce), who caused the death of his daughter (aka Sabitha's mother) in an accident. It's quite the complex web of familial pain, and Johanna finds herself thrust into the middle of it...though she'd rather not be involved if at all possible.
"It's not my business," is Johanna's usual shy response when those around start to open up, but she's soon unexpectedly and unknowingly thrust into a romance. Teenagers being teenagers, Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle, rocking a pretty Audrey Hepburn-ish haircut) intercept an innocent letter from Johanna to Ken, now serving a stint in prison. They start writing responses to Johanna as Ken, pretending that he has developed feelings for her, and in turn, the wallflower is deeply touched to be given the kind of attention she usually never receives. As the correspondence turns to email, the relationship -- made up of Johanna's earnest love letters and the fake ones "from" Ken -- takes on an even greater dimension and shape, one that will find Johanna pursuing her independence for the first time, down a path of potential emotional turmoil.
Based on the short story by the beloved Alice Munro, there is a lot to work with here. It's a tale of two women -- Johanna and Sabitha -- coming of age, an observation on the scars left by loss, and an examination of a variety of characters who strive to live beyond the judgements and low expectations placed on them. It's rich stuff, but unfortunately, much of that potential potency is snuffed out by director Liza Johnson. Working off what appears to be a pretty decent script by Mark Poirier, who does a good job of juggling quite a few story threads and giving each enough attention and depth, Johnson's rigorous and formal approach doesn't allow for any sparks, let alone fireworks. Wiig in particular is disappointing, mostly playing one note, arriving at first in the movie as buttoned down and meek, though containing an inner reserve of strength, and rarely deviating from that at all, despite the massive ups and downs Johanna faces in the second half of the film. As a result, what should be emotionally resonant, particularly as Johanna has a couple of small, victorious moments, is almost vaporized by this tightly cloistered and mostly unchanging performance.
But beyond that, there is a slightly disquieting streak of conservatism in the resolution "Hateship Loveship" presents. Without giving too much away, the picture seems to suggest traditional domesticity and gender roles as the saving grace for some of the characters, and it rings a bit old fashioned and hollow. While Johanna has certainly only known cleaning and cooking for much of her life, to suggest that bliss and a contented life can be found for her in another variation of that routine seems to be a modest and disappointing victory. We'd hope that her aspirations might have evolved beyond that, and her easy forgiveness against those that have done some fairly humiliating things to her are also unsatisfactory, particularly when combined with the already muted turn by Wiig. There's a fine line between a finale that softly uplifts with life's small triumphs and one that's underplayed to detrimental effect, and the picture never quite knows how to navigate that.
However, before the film rolls into its finale, there is a lot that does work, and that's attributed to an ensemble who all make the less obvious choices, in a picture that is thankfully free of the kind of showboating histrionics that pass for feeling in something like "August: Osage County." The character stuff that is present for much of the picture (special side note for the brief, but smartly chronicled look at Sabitha and Edith's journey too) is mostly very well done, but again, "Hateship Loveship" doesn't quite know how to wrap it up. And while the title might suggest audience members choose a side when it comes to their own opinion on the movie, in truth the final result is somewhere in the space between love and hate. [C+]