There’s an ineffable delicacy to Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro’s writing; within her prose resides the implicit wry acknowledgement that there’s terrifyingly little, beyond dumb luck, standing between life’s pleasures and miseries. In her story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” a cruel joke ironically sparks happiness: A pair of teenage girls fool a spinster into believing one of their fathers is in love with her, only to watch as the two adults eventually unite. Munro deftly alternates between so many streams of consciousness that you come to consider the truth of that quote that stipulates that “everyone is fighting their own battle,” and amid all those private battles lurks chaos, which occasionally yields fulfillment, if by accident.
Adapting this story for a film, which has been retitled simply Hateship Loveship, director Liza Johnson and screenwriter Mark Poirier disastrously set about immediately and directly voicing all of the source material’s subtexts so that we know right off where everyone emotionally stands. The characters are drained of their capacity to surprise us, as we’re denied the charge of gradually discovering nuances that we might not have initially expected. Disappointingly, Johnson isn’t interested in evoking the web of stifled communal desires that Munro presented, and so the film’s first act often scans as awkwardly exposition-laden homework that must be suffered through so as to arrive at the inevitably banal redemption fable that’s truly in mind.
With much of story’s ambiguity and humor pared way, Hateship Loveship ultimately offers little more than another opportunity for famous actors to indulge their fetishistic, inadvertently condescending impressions of “everyday” people who’re predictably revealed to be drab, hopeless, and nearly delusional in their naïveté. As Johanna, a sexually repressed maid who comes to work for a prosperous businessman (Nick Nolte, the life of this party) and his granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld), Kristen Wiig succumbs to that tradition of the comic who mistakes lifelessness for seriousness. As Ken, Sabitha’s father and Johanna’s eventual lover, Guy Pearce embodies only the fantasy of the bad-boy stud who recognizes a wallflower’s inner beauty: He broods prettily while informing this cliché with nothing in the way of recognizable behavioral texture.
Johanna and Ken are blanks—phantoms offered in testament to a theme that directly opposes Munro’s point of view, which allowed that the dreams you never realized you had could come true, but at the cost of the resignation of other, more glamorous, less rational, socially nurtured dreams. There’s no challenge, though, to the achievement of Johanna and Ken’s happiness (and thus no dramatic friction or momentum) in this film, because all they need to do to transcend their money problems, addiction issues, and past traumas is to love each other, and as a result everything else will wash away in the tide of their mutual affection and acceptance. Hateship Loveship, then, is a love story for people who value love at the expense of story, and common sense.