It takes admirable perversity to cast an actor in a role that features exactly none of the qualities that made that person famous. Adapted from a short story by Alice Munro (from the same collection that also inspired Sarah Polley’s Away From Her), Hateship Loveship is about a perpetual wallflower—a woman who rarely speaks, never asserts herself, and generally does her best to fade into the background, unnoticed, in any social situation. If Kristen Wiig isn’t the very last name on the list of viable candidates for this part, she’s surely somewhere in the bottom 5 percent. Hiring her was a bold move, and it’d be nice to report that she gives an improbably rich performance, joining the ranks of SNL alumni (Bill Murray, Adam Sandler) who’ve done fine work in purely dramatic roles. But while that still seems a possibility in the future, this particular character is so thinly written, and so aggressively nondescript, that it’s just a terrible fit for her, resulting in a preposterous wish-fulfillment fantasy with an enormous void at its center.
As the movie begins, Johanna Parry (Wiig) watches the elderly woman she’s spent most of her adult life caring for gently pass away. In need of another job, she signs on as the nanny for teenager Sabitha (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), whose mother was killed in a car accident while her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), was at the wheel. Sabitha now lives with her maternal grandfather (Nick Nolte), and has a troublemaking best friend (Sami Gayle) with whom she agrees to pull a cruel trick on Johanna, who they both find odd. When Ken, who lives hundreds of miles away in Chicago, sends Johanna a mildly friendly note along with a letter to Sabitha, the girls steal Johanna’s reply and proceed to fake Ken’s half of a lengthy, increasingly heated correspondence, directing Johanna to a fake email address and professing Ken’s love for her. Unused to receiving ardent attention from anyone, Johanna responds by packing her things and taking a bus to Chicago, where she discovers that Ken is a drug addict who has no idea what the hell she’s doing there.
Up to this point, Hateship Loveship at least seems mildly intriguing, even though Wiig isn’t the kind of actor who can communicate volumes without saying or doing much of anything, which is what the role requires. Once Johanna shows up at Ken’s disgusting apartment and starts literally cleaning up his act, however, the movie loses any semblance of connection with reality, as Ken abruptly ditches his fun-time girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in by far the film’s most credible performance) and falls head over heels for Johanna’s no-nonsense mothering. Director Liza Johnson, whose debut feature, Return, showed promise, demonstrates little control over this material, allowing numerous digressions (like the Nolte character’s hesitant romance with a bank teller played by Christine Lahti) that work fine in a vacuum but don’t serve the movie as a whole. Nor could Johnson apparently guide Wiig to a happy medium between her usual outrageousness and borderline catatonia. Staring blankly and unrevealingly into space doesn’t make for powerfully subtle drama; if Wiig’s going to make the transition, she needs a less affected part.