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Knight at the Movies: Hateship Loveship; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Like Carol Burnett just after she left her long-running TV variety show and wedged herself into a series of characters without a shred of humor, SNL alumna Kristen Wiig may think that dimming down her natural comedic gifts is what's required when playing "serious roles." Wiig has quickly established herself in movies with a batch of characters who are downtrodden at the point we meet them. The funny ones crack cynically about this; the serious ones seem to have barely enough energy to lift their heads off the pillow.

For much of Hateship Loveship—Wiig's new movie, which she also executive-produced—that's just about as much energy as her character, Johanna Perry, exudes. When we first meet Johanna she is preparing to help the elderly woman she's the caregiver for get dressed—when the woman suddenly expires. In a bit of bittersweet lunacy ( which makes for a very funny comic sight gag ), Johanna is determined to get her now- deceased patient into the dress she chose in what turned out to be her last wish. Wiig effortlessly milks the comedy in this inspired moment, which is leavened by the seriousness of the occasion. You're laughing ruefully as Wiig demonstrates her physical acumen at this kind of comedy—the kind of thing she did weekly for seven years on SNL.

But then the plot kicks in, with Johanna heading to her next job as housekeeper for the gravel-voiced Mr. McCauley ( Nick Nolte ), looking after his sullen teenage granddaughter Sabitha ( played by True Grit's Hailee Steinnfeld ). The comedy disappears as the colorless, cautious Johanna integrates herself into the house. In between lots and lots of cleaning—which includes enough floor-scrubbing to give Mommie Dearest a run for her money—Johanna does her awkward best to reach out to Sabitha, whose ne'er-do-well father, Ken ( Guy Pearce ), she briefly met when first arriving.

Ken—a failed dreamer struggling with drug addiction who is trying to get a run-down motel remodeled and who lives in Chicago following the death of his wife, Sabitha's mother—sends Johanna a thank-you note for extending him some kindness when they met. Johanna, whom we suspect at this point must have a pretty active fantasy life, responds with a quasi-love letter. Sabitha's nasty teenage friend intercepts the letter and the two teens enact a mean-spirited prank: They pretend to be Ken and start an email correspondence with the shy but enthusiastic Johanna, who is clearly love-struck ( and with Pearce's good looks, it's easy to see why ). Improbably, Johanna hatches a plan to go to Chicago and present herself to Ken, who she thinks has also fallen madly in love with her.

A series of reversals—many of them genuinely surprising—follows Johanna's impromptu actions. So surprising, in fact, that the last section of the film seems to be a realization of Johanna's fantasies. ( Talk about an improbable romance! ) The result—depending upon whether you are willing to buy into Johanna's motivations—is either an understated wish-fulfillment romance or a completely unrealistic character study.

Out screenwriter Mark Poirer adapted Hateship Loveship from a short story by Alice Munro. It's one of those small character studies where the purchase of a new dress speaks volumes—and, equally, where the color of that dress ( emerald green ) is going to make a big impression on both the audience and the character it is intended to dazzle. The movie is in the tradition of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Georgy Girl, Member of the Wedding, Sterile Cuckoo or even Precious—in which the lonely, plain, background girl improbably gets elevated to star status.

I like that the material subverts audience expectations very subtly—a bank-teller busybody ( expertly played by Christine Lahti ) isn't just a nosy Mrs. Kravitz, the bratty Sabitha isn't just a narcissistic example of the like generation and that Johanna doesn't get emotionally pulverized by the dirty trick played on her ( as the trailer for the movie would have you believe ).

But in rising to the occasion as she reaches out for love ( that some in the audience are going to find improbable )—couldn't Johanna have been given a bit more spark or shown us a bit more personality than this borderline cypher does? Director Liza Johnston elicits some very affecting performances from her talented actors but these are in service to Johanna's rather colorless character whose blossoming, as noted, is a bit hard to fall for—harder still given how familiar we are with Wiig's tremendous capacity to evoke humor in the most benign of situations. It's the film's real misstep.

Hateship Loveship is having its Chicago premiere beginning Friday, April 18, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Film notes:

—There are only 300 or so days until the next Oscar ceremony—an eternity for award-show junkies. To tide us over, Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies is presenting an encore screening of the fascinating, clip-laden documentary And the Oscar Goes To… from out filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The film takes viewers on a historical tour of the fabled ceremony, is packed with rarely seen vintage clips ( worth the price of admission alone ), and features new interviews with a bevy of Oscar winners sharing great stories about their one of a kind experiences ( gay icon and veteran of 23 Oscar telecasts Bruce Vilanch is part of the line-up ). The film is screening today, Wed., April 16, at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Visit

—The Northwest Chicago Film Society is back with another interesting screening on 35mm. This time it has unearthed a long-forgotten ( well mostly ) pre-code melodrama set in Chicago ( well, the backlot version of Chicago anyway ) from 1932 titled The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.

Briskly told and covering a lot of ground in its 73-minute running time ( typical for Warner Bros. ), this early film from director Michael Curtiz was a rare starring vehicle for the unsung Ann Dvorak ( pronounced "vore-shack" ), who essayed a batch of very interesting character roles in her all-too-brief career ( my favorite being Three on a Match as the love-struck, drug-addled Vivian in which she co-starred with Bette Davis and Joan Blondell ). Molly Louvain screens at the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Rd., on Wed., April 23, at 7 p.m. Christina Rice, author of the recently published Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel, will introduce the screening. The following night the gangster epic Scarface, in which Dvorak plays Edward G. Robinson's ill-fated sister ( probably her most famous role ), is screening at the Pickwick Theater, 5 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge, at 7:30 p.m.

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