Can you think of a comic actor who has capitalized less visibly on a major hit than Kristen Wiig? Since Bridesmaids smashed in 2011, Wiig has appeared in exactly two wide-release movies: as a low-key love interest to Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and as a berserk love interest to Steve Carell in Anchorman 2. Her more substantial roles, meanwhile, have all been in indies: Friends with Kids; her ill-fated pet project Girl Most Likely; the upcoming indie drama The Skeleton Twins; and the just-opened Hateship Loveship, a small drama based on an Alice Munro short story. The rest of her 2015-and-beyond dance card goes on in that vein. In other words, she’s doing more or less what she was doing before Bridesmaids (when she happily jumped aboard smallish comedies like MacGruber or The Brothers Solomon), albeit with a stronger emphasis on drama.
Compare this to Melissa McCarthy, who since Bridesmaids has toplined two big wide-release comedy hits, including a reunion with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig—and has another Feig team-up in the pipeline, along with her pet project Tammy (which sounded initially a bit like Wiig’s Girl Most Likely, formerly Imogene) getting a big Summer 2014 push from Warner Brothers; even her scene-stealing bit parts were in pretty big movies like The Hangover Part III and Judd Apatow’s This is 40. McCarthy’s success keeps Wiig’s career from being a grim sign of how Hollywood treats its funny ladies, making Wiig’s deal look more like a conscious choice. Indeed, rather than craving more audience approval, Wiig seems drawn to homebodies, outcasts, and arrested-development types, and having mined some of these types for comic possibilities she now seems to be reclaiming social awkwardness and miscommunications for sadness.
So while Hateship Loveship features one of her least comedic performances to date, it feels like an easy fit—perhaps even too easy. She plays Johanna, a sheltered woman who has spent most of her life quietly caring for others as a nurse and housekeeper. In the film’s opening scene, her elderly charge dies of old age, and Johanna moves to another family in another town, keeping house for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and caring for her granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld).
This sounds like the recipe for any number of sickly sweet permutations—except for the part where Alice Munro wrote the source material and is presumably responsible for the movie’s unexpected turns involving Sabitha’s deadbeat-ish father Ken (Guy Pearce) and troublemaking friend Edith (Sami Gayle). (And it probably isn’t what you’re thinking based on my lumping those two characters together.) I haven’t read Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage,” but whether the movie’s best details come from the story or not, director Liza Johnson brings out little details worthy of short fiction: small gestures like the way Johanna unpacks her shampoo from a plastic bag, or the varying levels of articulation in a note she writes. Johnson made the fine ex-soldier drama Return, and it seems like Wiig actively seeks out talented female filmmakers, more so than most people in her rarified position. Johnson is her third post-Bridesmaids female director and two of her upcoming projects are helmed by women, as well.
Kind of a bummer, then, that the movie positions itself to turn into either a movie about two broken people finding each other, or two broken people destroying each other—that tension between those two options is more interesting than the options themselves. Hateship Loveship jumps ahead in time with surprising assurance, but the short-story format, often such a superior fit for movies when compared to the ungainliness of novels, doesn’t make a perfect transition here. Hateship Loveship has a lot of nice details, but in the end feels a little bit like a short story with a bunch of enjoyable deleted scenes edited back in. It works ok as a movie, but not as well as it works as an example of its star’s willingness to make movies to which many of her peers wouldn’t give a second look.