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Uh oh, Kristen Wiig is stretching. Hateship Loveship, itself stretched from a short story by Alice Munro, is the former Saturday Night Live comedienne’s first go at drama. Wiig plays Johanna, a caretaker who is sent to a small town to help a well-to-do grandfather (Nick Nolte, dignified) watch over his 15-year-old granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). The house is big and beautiful, Sabitha’s a little brat, and Sabitha’s largely absent father, Ken (Guy Pearce), is clearly a drug addict. And upon her discovery of this state of affairs when she arrives, Johanna has no visible reaction.
And thus Liza Johnson’s low-key film continues, with Wiig apparently believing that playing not-funny means having only one expression—though, to be fair, the expression sometimes flickers from plain ol’ blank to slightly awkward, slightly disapproving, or slightly weird. Zombies have more life in their eyes. Johanna also dresses in cardigans, ankle socks, and sensible shoes, and one scene reveals that she shampoos with bargain-basement Suave. Simple to the point of dullness: We get it.
Scripter Mark Poirier, who also penned 2008’s horrible Smart People, leans heavily on blatant exposition, so it doesn’t take the viewer or Johanna long to discover that Ken killed Sabitha’s mother while driving intoxicated and did some time. (If you want to know someone’s darkest secrets, maybe a father and his son-in-law will just happen to have what they believe is a private discussion about a long-ago accident the day you meet them.) Sabitha’s grandfather, credited as Mr. McCauley, won’t let Ken stay overnight. And the mother of Sabitha’s friend Edith (Sami Gayle) won’t let her accept rides home from Danger Dad. Toxic: We get it.
But also thoughtful! Ken leaves Johanna a note thanking her in advance for taking care of his daughter. When Johanna writes back, however, the letter is intercepted by Edith and Sabitha, and they decide to prank her. With Edith taking the lead, the two start sending Johanna messages that get more and more swoony, creating an email account so they can communicate more easily.
That’s when Hateship Loveship really nose-dives into “yeah, right.” It’s not spoiling much to reveal that Johanna falls for it and gets dreamy about someone she knows is a walking nightmare. Unconditional love can be beautiful—even between two train wrecks, such as in the much superior Leaving Las Vegas—but here it’s just extremely difficult to believe, regardless of the fact that the one who falls is a sheltered noob (sheltered, but somehow a tigress in bed).
The steps Johanna takes to find love are laughable, more indicative of mental illness than lifelong loneliness. The story strains to deliver sermons about acceptance, forgiveness, responsibility, connection. But the film and its developments are too unrealistic to inspire rumination on these subjects. Instead of daydreaming about love, you’ll think about how great it would be if Wiig busted out her SNL tiny-hands character, or at least cracked a smile.