Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saturday Night Comatose: Liza Johnson's Hateship, Loveship

Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce in Hateship, Loveship

Hateship, Loveship, a low-budget drama directed by Liza Johnson and adapted by the novelist and screenwriter Mark Poirier from an Alice Munro story, opens with the dead-faced Johanna (Kirsten Wiig) dully looking at the old woman she’s been caring for and finally picking up a phone to tell someone that the woman is dead. It’s like the opening of a horror story about an affectless psychopath; has Johanna murdered her own charge? Is this just the latest in a string of victims who made the mistake of getting on her nerves by not dying on her timetable? It turns out that Johanna is a good woman, though her behavior often calls to mind the question that Nora Dunn asked of the hooker played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Miami Blues: “Is she really Princess Not-so-bright?”

Johanna finds a new job working for Mr. MacCauley (Nick Nolte), who lives in a big house in a small town with his granddaughter Sabitha (Hallee Steinfeld, the Mattie Ross of the Coen brothers’ True Grit), whose mother was killed in an accident. Sabitha’s father, Mr. MacCauley’s son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce), is a drug-addicted wastrel living in Chicago. It would be almost be a stretch to say that Johanna and the handsome, directionless Ken barely know each other. But after Sabitha and her mean-girl friend Edith (Sami Gayle) prankishly forge a love note from Ken to Johanna, and Johanna responds to it, the teenage girls set up an email account in Ken’s name and start catfishing her on a regular basis. Before long, Johanna gathers up her savings and heads for Chicago, having also paid to have a load of antique furniture belonging to Mr. MacCauley shipped ahead. When she walks in on the ailing, drugged-out Ken, expecting to start a new life with him in the space that hasn’t gotten a good cleaning since his wife died, he’s fit to be tied, I don’t mind telling you!

Wiig gives the kind of performance that gifted comic actors sometimes give when they’re grimly determined to show the world they can be serious actors. With lank, reddish-brown hair hanging off her head like a mom and pink smudges on her cheeks, as if she’d been made up by a little girl who mistook her for a Raggedy Ann doll, she drags her feet through the movie looking despondent. It’s clear, though, that she’s not depressed over the script, or the uncertain, uninflected direction, which leaves the audience stranded and uncertain over how to take what’s going on; it’s the kind of despondency that’s meant to show the performer’s integrity. Every so often, Johanna gazes off into the distance and smiles ever so slightly to herself, which in the context of this performance is like Cyd Charisse suddenly kicking one leg high above her head. The best thing about Wiig’s performance is that it must have made Guy Pearce realize that he couldn’t try to get away with the sullen sleeping-beauty act he often indulges in himself, and he makes an effort to carry his share of the movie, imbuing Ken the doper with an unexpected amount of shy charm and a warm smile.

After awhile, it becomes clear that Johanna, who at first appears to be one of those defenseless women, alone and adrift in a hard world doomed by their own romantic fantasies, the kind that Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers used to write about, is actually one of those movie simpletons who somehow compel the world to adjust itself around her, like Chance in Being There or Forrest Gump. That’s fine by me; just because the movie isn’t believable doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t rather see the characters end up happy than watch them be hurt and humiliated. The filmmaking is lifeless, but some of the performers provide enough pep to keep it on life support, especially Sami Gayle and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Ken’s drug-and-fuck buddy, and the great, missing-in-action Christine Lahti as a bank clerk. (This is the first time I’ve seen Lahti since the 2008 dud Smart People, which also had a script by Mark Poirier.) Hateship, Loveship almost has a nostalgic charm; it’s the kind of underfunded, literate little movie, with an unskilled director and an overqualified cast, that used to play at odd hours on A&E, back in the days when that network’s name stood for “Arts and Entertainment.” If Kirsten Wiig now has her serious-acting aspirations out of her system and is ready to go back to entertaining people, it will have done its part. And if Guy Pearce enjoyed waking up and turning on the charm so much that he feels like trying it again in a real movie, that would be okay, too.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment