Written by Mark Jude Poirier
Directed by Liza Johnson
Alice Munro is one of the finest living fiction writers, consistently able to create tight stories with hidden depths about uniquely aching and awkward characters. A few years ago, Sarah Polley adapted one of her stories from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage into the exquisite and painful Away From Her. So it’s possible for Munro’s work to shift from one medium to another and transition smoothly. Unfortunately, the new film Hateship Loveship, adapting that collection’s title story, was created by people with less confident hands; this particular short-story adaptation feels more slack and lacking in focus than is appropriate.
Kristen Wiig, playing as far against type as possible, is Johanna, a meek caretaker whose elderly charge passes away in the opening scene. So she moves onto a new job, as housekeeper for a grizzled older man, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), and caretaker of his snobbish granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Johanna is nearly a parody of introversion, barely raising her voice above a whisper to communicate and frequently fading into the background thanks to her dull, drably colored clothing. But when Sabitha and her best friend decide to write a love letter to Johanna in the guise of Sabitha’s ne’er-do-well father Ken (Guy Pearce), Johanna presumes it’s real and falls for this idealized version even though the real thing is far from perfect.
It’s not hard to see how this setup could’ve sprung from a Munro short story. The problem is an absence of tightness in the storytelling, specifically in the script, written by Mark Jude Poirier. Initially, as we’re made privy to Sabitha’s sneaky machinations, the conflict appears obvious—when will Johanna realize she’s been had and how will she react? Poirier, in what’s at first a pleasant surprise, resolves the conflict earlier than expected. However, once he does and Johanna moves on from her current job to getting closer with Ken, it’s clear that Hateship Loveship is rudderless. The focus of the first half of the film is squarely on Johanna and Sabitha, the latter allowing her resentments towards her grandfather and her lazy father (who was behind the wheel of a car, drunk, when her mother was killed in an accident) to spill towards the quiet and innocent newcomer in her life. Sabitha, in part because Steinfeld is given more material, is slightly more sympathetic than her friend, whose nastiness is slightly more inexplicable, to the point that her boyfriend has to point out how terrible she’s being. (Still, she doesn’t react as if she’s been slighted.)
Although Wiig hasn’t entirely limited herself in her other roles (separate from her work on Saturday Night Live) to broad comedy, there are moments early on when her work in Hateship Loveship almost seems like a private joke, or a dare to choose as personality-free a role as possible. Johanna’s lack of definable character becomes more trouble in the second half, when her dreams are, to a point, realized. As much as it’s gratifying to see Guy Pearce to embrace the fact that he’s a character actor in a leading man’s body, even he can’t make his attraction to Johanna terribly logical or understandable. He does a decent job of portraying the challenges of addiction and how easy it is to backslide into a bad habit—especially with his first girlfriend, briefly played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s just not easy to grasp what it is about Johanna he finds so entrancing. Nolte’s character, in the first half, seems mostly superfluous and is given an unnecessary subplot later in the film where he romances a bank teller (Christine Lahti); as pointless as his character is, Nolte manages to stand out in his short moments. One highlight: after a successful date and Sabitha interrogates him about why he’s late, he calmly, slowly sniffs her breath and points out that she’s been drinking. Here is a reminder that even in his older years, Nick Nolte is a force to be reckoned with.
Hateship Loveship would’ve been better off as a short; some films can manage to adequately replicate the feeling of reading a brilliant short story, but this isn’t one of them. The best short stories don’t just avoid overstaying their welcome; they feel tightly and carefully crafted to make sure that the reader gets just enough information about a character or scenario. Here is a case where Poirier and director Liza Johnson give the audience too much. There’s a looseness in the storytelling that becomes apparent as Johanna and especially Sabitha fade further into the background in the second half. Alice Munro is a brilliant writer, and at least one of her stories formed the basis of an equally brilliant film, but not all of her stories are meant to be turned into feature films.
— Josh Spiegel