One thing that distinguished 2011’s Bridesmaids from other raunchy rom-coms was star Kristen Wiig’s stillness, the hint of her character’s ingrained sorrow in the middle of all the projectile vomiting and drunken fights. Her melancholy poise wasn’t expected from an SNL cast member best known for comic mania. Director Liza Johnson apparently also noticed, casting Wiig in the central role of her drama Hateship Loveship. It’s an uneven but lovingly made version of a story by Nobel laureate Alice Munro, loosely but shrewdly adapted.
Wiig plays the taciturn, limp-haired Johanna. Already creeping up on middle age, she’s been an in-house caretaker since she was a teen for an isolated old lady whose death, at film’s start, makes Johanna step cautiously into a world she hardly knows. That step starts with a job the old lady’s pastor sets up for her as housekeeper with an Iowa family.
Johanna wears dowdy cardigans, retro flowered dresses and practical but cheap shoes. These are immediately noticed and mocked by the high schooler, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whom she’s hired to keep an eye on, at least when she’s not scrubbing floors and cooking meals.
Sabitha’s mother died years ago in the crash of a motorboat piloted by her drunk and high dad, Ken (Guy Pearce). She’s now being raised by her grandfather (Nick Nolte), who, on Ken’s occasional visits, pointedly doesn’t invite Ken to sleep over before his long drive back home to Chicago.
Well, “home” is pushing it. Ken has bought a derelict cheap-sheet motel that’s a mongrel even for that category of sad buildings. He’s got big plans for it, and hopes this will be the latest Great Idea his estranged father-in-law might invest in. Ken’s smeary, ash-stained girlfriend is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plops down on his mattress like a grown-up version of the pixie hooker she played in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Do they have sex, or is she just somebody to share drugs with? (His Narcotics Anonymous meetings don’t seem to be helping much.)
Johanna knows none of this. All she knows is that Ken sends her a brief, polite note, thanking her for looking after his daughter. Then comes a series of increasingly lovelorn emails from Ken, praising Johanna’s pretty face and wistfully imagining taking her in his arms. What’s easy enough for us sophisticates in the audience to see through remains opaque to the unworldly housekeeper. Soon she’s the smitten victim of this mean-girl, fake courtship engineered by Sabitha and her best pal Edith (Sami Gayle). It’s breathtakingly cruel.
Readers of Munro (and if you aren’t one, you should become one) know that she doesn’t shy away from hard truths and bad ends for some of the people in her stories. But her work is largely distinguished by the grace and understanding she brings to her characters, even the louses. She sets us up to see Johanna take a fall, be humiliated. Though the movie’s central section has a few quietly excruciating scenes in which Johanna fights despair by doing the only thing she knows how to do — cook and clean — you realize that this is stubborn decency we’re seeing, not submission or masochism. She’s the water that erodes the rock.
At the heart of Hateship Loveship is an invigorating idea. What if the cruelest sort of prank could, accidentally, ripple out in ways that positively affect the lives of the people it touches? Don’t worry. The movie’s not a Hallmark card. It earns its themes of healing, growth and renewal honestly. You have to approach parts of it with patience, though; it’s not perfect.
There’s a lovely, calm practicality in Wiig’s portrayal of Johanna. Watch the way she sniffs the blankets of the bedridden old lady she tends (a longtime morning ritual) and patiently tugs a blue dress over the cooling body after the woman dies. Johanna has a small, thin voice — not childish, exactly, but the voice of someone taught not to make noise. Wiig has some of Amy Adams’ mix of emotional reserve and directness. What she doesn’t have is Adams’ full, diverse acting chops needed for a couple of awkward middle scenes.
We have to take some things that happen, narratively, on faith because Wiig and Pearce can’t completely sell us on some big changes. Maybe that’s because Pearce, cigarette dangling from his lips, so convincingly nails his portrayal of an aging pretty boy who doesn’t realize he can’t get away with his sex-‘n’-drugs crap forever. (You never quite trust Ken when he starts to act like a responsible person.)
Still, the movie succeeds, bolstered by strong supporting work from Nolte, both teenage girls, and by Christine Lahti. She plays a typical Alice Munro type, even though the character didn’t exist in Munro’s original story: a woman who starts off as a smiling busybody, but by movie’s end is revealed to be a fuller, kinder character. These are ordinary people, trying to make the best of things. And sometimes, managing to do exactly that.
Hateship Loveship. With Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by Liza Johnson. Rated R. 102 minutes. At the Plaza Theatre.