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'Hateship Loveship': Audience expectations are constantly upended

'Hateship Loveship' stars Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce.

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'Hateship Loveship' stars Kristen Wiig.

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Kristen Wiig is such a gifted clown that seeing her play a repressed wallflower in “Hateship Loveship” comes as a shock. It took me a while to shake off the feeling that her performance was one big put-on – the ultimate deadpan comic turn.

She plays Johanna, an Iowa woman hired to look after the adolescent Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who is living with her grandfather (Nick Nolte) since her mother died in an accident blamed on errant father Ken (Guy Pearce). Ken has been in prison and is a not-so-recovering drug addict, but he’s not a bad guy, really, just dissolute. He wants to fix up a motel he bought in Chicago, where he lives. When he leaves Johanna a thank-you note, it spurs a teenage prank in which she is mistakenly led to believe he loves her.

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Directed by Liza Johnson from a screenplay by Mark Poirier based on a short story by Alice Munro, “Hateship Loveship” doesn’t quite work out the way you think it will (unless you’ve read the Munro story). Johanna is so straitlaced and dutiful that she’s practically robotic. You sense that nothing good will come of her infatuation with Ken, and yet this is a movie in which our worst pulp expectations are constantly being upended.

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But they're not upended altogether successfully. The film comes across as a gentle and not entirely believable polemic for the good life, despite all the badness on view. And although the cast, which also includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Christine Lahti in sharp cameos, is very good, Wiig’s performance is self-effacing to a fault. Like a lot of comic actors, she overcompensates in dramatic roles by wearing a very long face. Grade: B (Rated R for drug use, some sexuality and language.)