LOS ANGELES — For Helen Hunt it was “As Good as It Gets.” For Jennifer Aniston it was “The Good Girl.” For Bill Murray, “Lost in Translation.” The films that settled whether actors adept at comedy could be as affecting in drama.
You can sense that question hanging over “Hateship Loveship” and Kristen Wiig’s wistful performance as the quintessential caregiver, Johanna Parry. While there are suggestions that the actress might be able to find her way to a darker emotional center, the film leaves only hints of an answer.
There is not the sure-footedness of co-stars Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld and particularly Guy Pearce. Nor the ease you see in her comedy through the many characters she developed during her long run on “Saturday Night Live” or the nuance, surprising and unexpected, she brought to “Bridesmaids.”
It’s not that Wiig doesn’t measure up, but the way the movie implodes around her.
Drawn from the first short story in Alice Munro’s collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories,” thick with detail and filled with emotional heft, the adaptation by writer Mark Poirier is thin. Director Liza Johnson, coming off another character study, 2011’s “Return,” takes a minimalist approach that suits the unassuming Johanna. But unlike the teeming world living between the lines in Munro’s story, there is not nearly enough in “Hateship Loveship” to keep you invested.
Set in a slightly more modern time — emails instead of typed letters play a significant role — the story still feels locked in a time warp. A character’s been added to the mix, a few scenes expanded, but the core theme of how a mean-spirited teenage prank changes a woman’s life remains its spine.
The film opens with Johanna wrapping up one chapter of her ordinary existence — the elderly woman she’s been caring for dies — and beginning the next. She leaves the country for a town, a silent household for a busy one that the florid Mr. McCauley (Nolte) rules with his opinions and his regrets.