by Matt Levine
American indie dramas have an insufferable, bland reputation because of movies like Hateship Loveship—a self-serious bore with characters best described as “quirky” and a dead-on-arrival visual style. It may be adapted from an Alice Munro short story (entitled “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”), but the deft prose and complex interweaving of narration in her writing is completely drained from this cinematic translation, which shoots only for the grand themes and mawkish character epiphanies, forgetting to elaborate on any of the heartaches or oddities in between. Hateship Loveship is so desperate to unite its two central, wounded characters that it forgets to make them convincing or surprising—they are, instead, prototypes that might be found in any creative-writing seminar.
Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Liza Johnson
Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes, Jamin O’Brien, Dylan Sellers
Writers: Mark Poirier, Alice Munro (story)
Cinematographer: Kasper Tuxen
Editor: Michael Taylor
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sami Gayle, Christine Lahti, Nick Nolte, Lauren Swinney
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 11, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
Kristen Wiig stars as Johanna, a caretaker who has been serving other families since she was fifteen. There’s little mention of Johanna’s upbringing or family life, so her numerous quirks—like the fact that she doesn’t know what a computer password is, or (even worse) a moronic scene in which she passionately makes out which her reflection on a mirror—feel like lazy attempts to imbue her with any kind of distinguishable personality. (They fail regardless.) After the death of her most recent patient, she’s sent to the home of a wealthy businessman named McCauley (Nick Nolte) to tend to his home and help raise his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha’s father Ken (Guy Pearce) also happens to be visiting at the time of Johanna’s arrival—a taunting twist of fate, since the typically insular Johanna feels the sting of love and lust as soon as she meets him.
We quickly come to understand that Ken has had a troubled past: a junkie alcoholic still struggling to kick his cocaine habit, he was responsible for a boating accident that killed his wife/McCauley’s daughter. He lives in Chicago with a drug-addled floozy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is surely one of the most thankless female roles in recent cinematic memory. Ken’s not a bad guy: he’s sensitive and charming, and it’s easy to see why Johanna takes to him immediately. In an ensemble suffocating from obnoxious affectation, Guy Pearce offers a textbook lesson in subtlety and likeability.
After Sabitha innocently gives Johanna a note that Ken included in his most recent letter (a gentlemanly “nice to meet you” sort of thing), Johanna reads this as the first step of a burgeoning relationship. She pens an overly earnest response and gives it to Sabitha to return to him; the distrustful Sabitha, with her friend Edith (Sami Gayle), concoct their own response and instigate a fake email correspondence from “Ken” (who doesn’t even have a computer), causing Johanna to fall in love with a nonexistent ideal. Edith soon becomes a spiteful, vindictive witch, stealing Sabitha’s boyfriend and criticizing her family’s wealth. Why? Because yet another insipid plot conflict denotes emotional power in the movie’s deluded view of cinematic drama, though in this case more is decidedly less.
Munro’s original short story was generally about a cruel high-school prank leading to true love between mismatched people, and that element is clearly what motivated the making of the movie in the first place. Johanna takes a bus to Chicago to marry Ken, per “his” email instructions, even buying a beautiful green dress for the occasion; when she arrives, their first interaction is cringe-inducing (it’s one of the few scenes in which we feel empathy for Johanna’s plight). She storms out in embarrassment, though Ken warmly insists that she stay. It’s the same clichéd story of a good woman guiding a troubled man back to redemption and self-confidence, especially since we know so much about Ken (even discovering the secret hiding spot where he stashes his drugs) and so little about Johanna, aside from her tendency to clean obsessively as a form of emotional connection. Where she’s been and what she’s gone through barely matter at all, in the movie’s view; all that matters is that she’s there for Ken.
With such phony characters and broadly forecasted plot developments, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to become involved in this story. There’s a happy ending, of course, but it feels phoned-in, and in any case we see it coming about twenty minutes into the movie. More disastrous (though it pains me to say so) is Wiig’s performance; she’s shown dramatic range in several of her comedic roles in the past, but here she mistakes stone-faced glumness (with dashes of inane metaphorical gestures) as a stand-in for a “serious” role. She certainly faces an uphill battle with such a poorly-drawn character, but a bit more spontaneity and naturalism might have made Johanna a compelling mystery. Among the rest of the performers, Pearce and Steinfeld fare the best, as their characters occasionally resemble real people with identifiable crises; as a curmudgeonly patriarch, Nolte can be fun to watch, although the fact that the majority of his dialogue requires him to reiterate how much he hates his son-in-law (because the audience is so stupid we have to be reminded of this constantly) makes his character more exasperating than affecting.
Aesthetically, Hateship Loveship is just as unwilling to stray from the well-beaten path. The oft-handheld cinematography often creeps or zooms slowly towards the characters, trying to convince us that it achieves a probing analysis of these people, though such a simplistic visual motif simply becomes redundant. The same can be said of the dreary, muted color palette (a note to cinematographers: shooting with digital cameras is not an excuse to disregard a movie’s color scheme). Dickon Hinchliffe’s music only makes sporadic appearances, which is fortunate: it’s atrocious when it does, the kind of syrupy acoustic-guitar filler that would be subpar at a neighborhood coffee shop.
If the movie’s emotional wavelength is completely lifeless, so is the off-putting thematic subtext: essentially, this is the story of a meek housewife, diligently cooking and cleaning for her man until he realizes how much he loves her. (Tammy Wynette plays on the radio at one point, which is fitting: the movie’s motto might be “Stand by your man.”) This might seem surprising given that the film was directed by a woman (Liza Johnson, making her second feature) and based on a story by Alice Munro (whose original story did not have such outdated gender roles), but there is never the suggestion that Johanna’s overzealous housekeeping is repressive or outdated; on the contrary, it’s her path to romantic fulfillment. Johanna’s psychological compulsion to clean can be contextualized—after all, it’s been her job for decades, and the movie suggests that her own family required her to do the same for them—but it’s never even viewed ambivalently, much less critically. The final shot of the film is particularly unsettling: its happy ending envisions Johanna in a static frame, cleaning the carpet while a newborn baby cries offscreen, her husband nowhere to be seen. This is where she belongs, the movie dubiously asserts.
Aside from its questionable gender roles, Hateship Loveship irritatingly represents “indie dramas” at their worst—trite, self-serious, heavy-handed, and stylistically empty all at the same time. Critical consensus tells us that Hollywood regurgitation like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Brick Mansions are bombs, and they’re certainly no masterpieces—but they are infinitely more exciting than Hateship Loveship, a movie which has literally no visual or narrative surprises. The film is too timid to inspire anger or frustration, though such strong reactions would at least be preferable to what it actually instills: pervasive, thumb-twiddling boredom.