Watching Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live, you maybe sometimes wondered if she was from outer space, perhaps some planet where women have big foreheads and tiny hands, and sing like chickens on helium. As sheltered housekeeper Johanna in Liza Johnson's proudly frustrating Hateship Loveship — a pun on the emotions on either side of friendship — the buttoned-up, buttoned-lipped Wiig again seems to have landed in the Midwest from Mars, as though, like David Bowie before her, she's The Maid Who Fell to Earth. In real life, a middle-age virgin like Johanna would be wearing mom jeans and sweatpants, clothing Wiig has donned before for laughs. But Johnson sticks her in faded dresses with Peter Pan collars that haven't been seen outside Amish country in decades. When Johanna furtively slips on a pair of her boss's granddaughter's sunglasses, she looks like an alien studying how to blend in.
Eventually, we learn Johanna's origins are grimly terrestrial. Since she was 15, she has been the live-in caretaker of an elderly woman who kept her physically close but at an emotional remove. Johanna didn't even know how old the woman was when she died. It's been a beige life. Against the shabby wallpaper in the opening scenes, Wiig's red hair is the sole jolt of color. Asked about the good times, Johanna can only recall one trip to Iowa City. As for her childhood before, it's a mystery. But any circumstances that hand off a teenager to a stranger can't have been good.
Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) is Johanna's second employer, mainly so she can watch over his hard-headed granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Johanna has been in his house for only a few hours when his estranged former son-in-law, Ken (Guy Pearce), calls her "gorgeous," buys her a burger, and then takes off to Chicago.
His cheap, forgettable kindness upends Johanna's world. It's instantly clear to us that Ken's a rat: a meth-snorting ex-con who breaks everything he touches. But the attention of any man opens Johanna up to the hope of what she hopes is a normal, wedded future — and exposes her to heartbreak when Sabitha callously pranks both the father she hates and this weirdo who's moved into her house by emailing Johanna love letters in Ken's name.
Hateship Loveship is a film you long to like. You become desperate to hear Wiig laugh, and when that starts to look impossible, you start wondering what exactly the movie, inspired by a work by Alice Munro, wants to accomplish. It's too painful to be uplifting, too private to explore what was clearly child abuse. At times, Joanna's closest parallel seems to be Carrie White, without the telekinesis or religion.
The first act ends with Johanna hopping a bus to marry a man who hasn't thought of her in months. It's excruciating. Yet we, too, have a hard time loving Johanna, in part because she's one of those maddeningly mute characters who won't open her mouth and set things straight. Mostly, it's because Johnson doesn't seem to trust her star to unclench and act. Instead, Wiig stoically clods around in ankle socks and sensible shoes with her shoulders hunched forward like a nervous dog's. We're anxious to see her flower — she deserves to, damn it — but the closest she gets are the prim pansies printed on her apron, and the occasional microscopic smile, which the camera has to push close to catch.
In contrast, the rest of the cast, down to the gossipy local bank teller (Christine Lahti), feels electrically human. Steinfeld is a marvel — she seems like a real teenager, not a precocious Hollywood concoction — and Nolte, gruff as ever, even gets a makeout scene where the lens zooms so tight on his mouth that we expect the soundtrack to switch to a porno saxophone.
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As the attention shifts to Joanna's fumbled wooing, Pearce, dirtied up with stringy hair, worn boxers, and tattoos, shoulders the story's emotional arc, visibly wrestling with feelings she wouldn't even know how to describe. The new setting, a shuttered motel Ken bought with vague plans to renovate if the money ever fell in his lap, couldn't be less romantic. It's cluttered with broken lamps, stacks of ancient sheets and, most awkwardly, Ken's lady friend, an aging party girl played full steam by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
At its most hopeful, Hateship Loveship suggests that a person's rough edges can be scoured away with empathy, patience and trust. Still, we're never convinced that Ken is worth the elbow grease — even for a lonelyheart whose second nature is servitude.
Only one scene hints at the weird spark Wiig could have added if she'd allowed herself to loosen up just a fraction. While polishing a mirror, Johanna stops to look, really look, at her dormant beauty. She leans in to see better. Then she gives her reflection a chaste peck that dampens into a wet, squeaky French kiss. The moment is sad, messy, earnest and strange, the classic Wiig comedy combination, and while it's understandable that she wants to do more than make people laugh, we're grateful for even these shared seconds of happiness.
HATESHIP LOVESHIP | Directed by Liza Johnson | Written by Mark Poirier | IFC Films | Sundance Sunset