Film Review: Hateship Loveship

As evidenced by the number of production companies and people involved, <i>Hateship Loveship</i> seems to have had difficulties getting off the ground. And it will be more difficult still for this lackluster film to attract a sizeable audience&#8212;de

Casting Kristen Wiig as Johanna Parry in Hateship Loveship was just a little too on-the-nose: Johanna is a plain, painfully shy young woman exactly like those Wiig so hilariously satirized during her stint on “Saturday Night Live.” On “SNL,” however, her pathologically timid characters always had a zany side—and when Wiig co-wrote and starred in the extremely zany Bridesmaids, her fans naturally clamored for more of the same. Wiig, like her fellow “SNL” alumnae Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, was seen as one of our great new female comics.

But, evidently, Wiig is not sure that’s how she sees herself. Her recent choice of roles—in such films as Girl Most Likely and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—either totally ignored or greatly underutilized her comedic talents. And now, in Hateship Loveship, she seems to have reached in and ripped out what’s left of that crazy, zany heart of hers, poured Pine Sol over it and thrown it into the trash.

Wiig’s Johanna is a professional caretaker and housecleaner (and a heavy user of the Pine Sol family of products) whose life is centered on her work. She will not allow herself any of life’s pleasures—although, paradoxically, she secretly harbors a pretty powerful sex drive. When her latest job ends with the death of an elderly patient, Johanna’s agency sends her to the home of a Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), to become a live-in housekeeper and watch over his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose mother (his daughter) was recently killed in a car crash. The driver of that car was Sabitha’s father, the ne’er-do-well Ken (Guy Pearce), who has lately moved to Chicago.

When she’s not supervising 16-year-old Sabitha, who’s basically a good kid when she’s not with her trouble-making friend Edith (Sammi Gayle), Johanna spends her days cleaning and cooking, and sometimes, when she’s alone in the bathroom, she passionately French-kisses herself in the mirror. Surely, you say, Kristin Wiig meant for this scene to be funny. Well, who knows? After slathering saliva all over the mirror, she stoically wipes it away with a spritz of Windex. Stoic, in fact, is Johanna’s perpetual go-to mood.

However, her eyes do light up the first time she gets a look at Ken, who has come to visit his daughter, and to ask his father-in-law to invest in the rundown motel he just bought. (The answer is no.) Ken notices Johanna too, because she’s the only one in the household who makes an effort to be nice to him. In fact, he so appreciates her kindness he writes her a thank-you note when he gets back to Chicago—a polite but noncommittal missive which nevertheless fires Johanna’s romantic imagination.

When Johanna composes a handwritten reply to Ken, she makes the mistake of asking Sabitha to mail the letter for her, and the cagey Edith overhears. It is she who suggests they should forget about mailing Johanna’s rather embarrassing letter, and instead, as a joke, pretend to be Ken replying to Johanna by email. And, naturally, they say the kind of things that are guaranteed to feed Johanna’s fantasies. From then on, a thrilled Johanna uses the library computer to reply to Ken as well as receive “his” e-mails, and the exchanges become increasingly florid and suggestive—thanks primarily to Edith’s vivid imagination. At this point, Sabitha begins to worry about the consequences of their prank on the clueless Johanna. As well she should.

In time (and the script is unclear on how much time passes), Johanna secretly arranges to steal some of Mr. McCauley’s antique furniture and ship it off to Ken’s motel (she believes it belongs to him, as a widower’s right), and the next day she leaves a note resigning her job and secretly gets on the bus to Chicago. She finds Ken in his empty motel sleeping off a booze and cocaine hangover while shacking up with his slutty girlfriend Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He is totally surprised to see Johanna, of course, and when he admits he doesn’t even have a computer, she is devastated. But she stays on—and in her no-nonsense but illogical way, Johanna begins to fix up the motel and straighten out Ken.

Hateship Loveship is based on an Alice Munro story with a much longer title. Now, Ms. Munro has won a Booker prize and a Nobel in literature, but her dry, slowly paced short stories about the lives of relatively dull, plainspoken people are not to everyone’s taste. Still, let’s hope that Johanna’s story is much more compelling on the page than it is on the screen. And let’s hope Ms. Munro intended a more uplifting message for womankind than the one that comes through in Hateship Loveship. It may work for some women, but do we really want to put out the notion that a female’s chief happiness is found in cooking and cleaning and having sex with a man so that he’ll let her organize and change his life until he falls in love with her, gets her pregnant and proposes marriage?

Let’s also hope that Kristin Wiig soon gets back to what she does best. Ditto the other fine actors in this flat, essentially anti-movie movie.

Click here for cast & crew information.