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Movie review: 'Hateship Loveship' delivers only acquaintanceship

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Hateship Loveship

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I really wanted to like this one. Expected to, looked forward to it for weeks. But sadly, it just didn’t’ happen. I’ll tell you why in just a moment, but in case you’re inclined to stop reading at this point, don’t.

"Hateship Loveship" is one of those pieces for which success lands squarely with the sensibilities of its viewer; it’s like "Inside Llewyn Davis" that way. I have my reasoned opinion, yet there are reasonable people who adore it, and if you may be one of them, I wouldn’t want to have steered you away.

Here we meet one Johanna Parry, a domestic caregiver having spent much of her life looking after an elderly woman now gone, and who finds herself assigned to a new position in a faraway state. Johanna’s existence has been a sheltered one, fashioned by circumstance but allowed by Johanna’s own timid nature.

Its limits didn’t show themselves in particularly clear relief against Mrs. Willets’ slow-moving pace, but now that she’s tending a modern young woman in the care of a custodial grandfather with an involved life of his own, Johanna’s withdrawn, unschooled ways set her apart as a bit of an oddity. And as any teenaged mean girl will tell you, oddity begs to be targeted for sport. Hold that thought.

Also in the mix we have Sabitha’s estranged father, Ken. Ken lost custody when he factored materially into the absence of Sabitha’s mother, landed himself in the clink, and failed to participate honestly in his narcotics recovery program. In other words, Ken meets the general criteria of unfit father.

Having paid his debt to society he’s trying to do better, in the largely-grandiose pseudo-effective manner of the using addict; but he has a good heart and genuinely appreciates the efforts of father-in-law Bill and now Johanna in picking up his slack. (As one might imagine, Bill and Sabitha take a much dimmer view of Ken’s good wishes than does Ken himself.)

From this good heart Ken leaves Johanna a note of appreciation before departing to his distant so-called residence, signing off as “your friend” and sparking a world of imagination in the inexperienced Johanna. A friend! Such has never happened before, and Johanna composes a reply with much thought, earnestness, and goodwill of her own.

Enter Sabitha’s alpha mean girl BFF Edith, who offers to mail the letter. Thus commences a correspondence, now moved to email, in which the girls, posing as Ken, romance Johanna with an ardor that leads her, with rationality despite her naiveté, to shopping for her wedding dress.

Hm. Seems to head nowhere good, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t, but not for reasons one might expect.

Based on the Alice Munro’s short story entitled "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage", the film enjoys a powerful cast including Nick Nolte, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, and Christine Lahti, and it also marks the dramatic debut of comedic superstar Kristin Wiig as Johanna. Together, this group represents seven Oscar nominations and one win, so my expectations were high. And my prayers earnest.

Growth is Good

Things often fare well when an actor moves into an adjacent area such as directing (Lake Bell, Clint Eastwood, Bill Paxton, Sarah Polley); they can go either way when jumping to a different area altogether, such as singing (Justin Timberlake and Eddie Murphy, you can figure that one out). But the waters become treacherous regarding the polar opposites of comedy and drama.

The adjacent area applies the skills of a single talent to another area related to that talent; the different area involves possessing that skill or not, period. But comedy and drama can be tricky, because they’re flip sides of the same conversation. Unless one can walk the deliciously delicate line of dry humor/straight-man (Alan Arkin), the result are uninspired at best. Über-talents like Anne Bancroft, Edward Norton, and Christopher Walken can move seamlessly along the continuum at will, and it’s poetry in motion.

Given Wiig’s comedic genius in both writing and delivery, I trusted in her talent while praying against a train wreck of equal and opposite force. The short version: it wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped for, but it’s a wash. Do-over, please.

As "Hateship Loveship" got started, I had the sense that while it wasn’t a particularly natural performance, there wasn’t anything wrong there. Whereas sometimes someone astonishes us with a so-called “hidden” talent (Norton in "The Score" and "Death to Smoochy" back to back, mercy), other times it’s witnessing a solid start to someone’s new endeavor, and more power to ‘em for seeking to grow.

Here the latter, Wiig felt rather like someone taking her new craft seriously, but working just a bit too hard at it (“okay, twitch left cheek muscle here to indicate interior reaction”). Unlike Pearce and Steinfeld, who appeared to be doing nothing at all unless you knew the contrast to their prior work, Wiig seemed so self-conscious that it never let us get into the story. We were too busy Watching Kristin Wiig.

Additionally, she carried this one note through every highly charged moment with such one-note consistency that by the halfway point I was suspecting that however finely she could draw Johanna, she couldn’t move out of that characterization enough to convey Johanna’s evolution, and ended up with a one-note portrayal applied to everything from unpacking a suitcase to committing grand larceny to realizing that the person across from her had set her life on a different trajectory. However badly I wanted this to succeed for her, I concluded mid-way that while I’d support another attempt, I didn’t hold out a lotta hope.

You’ll notice I’m speaking in the past tense. This, because by the time the film was over, I was almost fully persuaded that all this had little do with Wiig.

At best, she was only one-third of a perfect storm, in which case if true at all, it was merely freshman nerves. The other two elements, and ones that really did fail her, were the direction and the contents of the script (either the source material itself or adaptation decisions).

The first I suspect because every single interaction across every character – be it the introduction of Johanna into her new job, the estrangement between Ken and Bill, the budding romance between Bill and friend Eileen, the confrontation of Edith by someone pointing out the cruelty of her actions, or any assortment of truly galvanizing events in the life of Johanna herself – vibrates on the same unwavering intensity. Vocal tone and inflection consistent across the board; no distinction of fire and ice between characters; in other words, completely out of touch with the highly emotional nature of the piece. Bereavement, betrayal, humiliation, awakening, reconciliation, all the same note.

Second, the film utterly ignores many major confrontations and turning points, rendering much of the story ridiculous. At every turn the points on which the story hinges either occur offside or without any acknowledgement of the strife underway. Unplanned pregnancy with no insurance? “I’m not ready.” Cut to welcoming the baby. Theft of goods that represent a man's lost loved ones? Oh well. Cut to happy times. Shame and humiliation the likes of "Carrie"? Hey, that was kinda mean, but whatever. Cut to next conversation entirely. You think I don’t know you’re using? Gosh, sorry honey, I'll stop this time. Cut to happy family. And so it went.

Just because a conversation is quiet doesn’t mean it’s powerful; just because a character utters a line acknowledging the challenge doesn’t mean the issue is neutralized and we can proceed blithely into the sunset. Just because someone displays selfless love doesn’t mean someone else gets clean. We can get that such breaches can be healed, and that does, in fact, make for powerful drama. But you have to show it to us. As it stands, either Johanna never was as shut down as she seemed at first, or we didn’t get to see her transformation.

Maybe next time Wiig will get to show us more. I look forward to that. And in the meantime, keep your eyes and streaming queue open for "Woman Wanted" (with Holly Hunter, Michael Moriarty, and Keifer Sutherland in his directorial debut) and "A Cooler Climate" (with Sally Field and Judy Davis). Both are huge favorites of mine, and tell the story of life in rocky ruin, shifting dynamics, unexpected belonging, and restoration in the way that "Hateship Loveship" sought to accomplish.

Story: A teenage girl and her friend orchestrate an email romance with a shy domestic caregiver, posing as one girl's absent father.

Genre: Drama

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Nick Nolte, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Sami Gayle, Christine Lahti, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Directed by: Liza Johnson

MPAA: R

Running time: 104 minutes

Houston release date: April 25, 2014 at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park; may also be available on demand

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or the Drafthouse website

Screened April 22nd 2014 via studio screener

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