Kristen Wiig's career trajectory after Bridesmaids shot her into the popular stratosphere has been curious, to say the least. Rather than pushing forward on a sequel or even taking on other straight-up comedies, she's drifted into indie films and quirky dramedies with mixed results. While her smaller roles in Friends with Kids and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (and the upcoming The Skeleton Twins) showed her dramatic and romantic sides, Girl Most Likely didn't showcase any of her talents very well. But it was a long stretch ahead of Hateship Loveship, a somber, monotonous cure for insomnia if there ever was one.
Wiig, Nick Nolte, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, and Jennifer Jason Leigh look like they could use a dose of smelling salts throughout Hateship Loveship, which is based on a short story by Alice Munro. Sarah Polley adapted another of Munro's works into the devastatingly emotional Away from Her, and that only adds to the disappointment of this film's decided lack of dramatic punch. Wiig doesn't get to tell any jokes, or do anything remotely fun as Joanna, a mousy and reserved caregiver who barely speaks. She's spent so much time looking after others she doesn't know how to function. She hardly smiles, and dresses like a 19th century midwife.
After her latest client passes away, Joanna's new gig thrusts her into the troubled McCauley family, coping with the recent death of a loved one. Her job is to watch over teenaged Sabitha (Steinfeld), a rebellious and hormonal teen living with her grandfather (Nolte) since her mother's death in a car accident. At the wheel was her father Ken (Pearce), a junkie who can barely take care of himself, much less his daughter. For the most part, Joanna tries to stay out of their way, keeping quiet when squabbles break loose. A total innocent in the ways of love, Joanna misinterprets a simple letter of thanks sent by Ken, writing him a length and deeply personal response. Sabitha, who resents having a babysitter, send her a fake love letter from Ken, starting a phony back-and-forth that has the terminally shy Joanna gleeful at the romantic attention. Yeah, she totally got catfished. Her response is borderline stalker-ish, rushing out to buy new clothes, stealing antique furniture from the family, and moving into Ken's home unannounced. Considering he's always drunk or high, Ken accepts her presence readily, even dumping his skanky girlfriend (Leigh) for no good reason.
It's a pretty complicated jumble of characters and emotional riffs to play off of, and there are many more that weave in and out. But mostly this is about Joanna and Sabitha, two men coming into their own at different stages of life. It's fertile material given director Liza Johnson to tread, if only she bothered to do it with even a hint of passion. Instead, her stifling approach limits the performances of a cast any competent filmmaker would bend over backwards to spotlight. Overly-mannered and submissive, Wiig never fits comfortably into a role that requires a smothering of her natural appeal. We want to like Wiig in everything, but you have to give us a reason to!
Interestingly, the story also seems to suggest, well...it really sort of shouts it....a misguided and old-fashioned notion that women can find fulfillment just by fixing up the right man. Joanna throws herself into rebuilding Ken's life, getting him and his house clean, without really having any needs of her own met. Not that we ever learn enough about her to know what those needs are. Certainly she needs more than just the occasional roll in the hay and a dirty floor to mop up....right? It's clear that she has been able to find some measure of happiness watching over others, but the lack of evolution in her character makes us more likely to pity Joanna's future than want to celebrate it. It's a weak and somewhat insulting resolution to a film it's easy to have 'hateship' for, assuming you can stay awake through it.