There's something quietly off-kilter and, well, a little sad in Kristen Wiig's comedy. In Bridesmaids, her Annie lost the passion for life, even if she was having sex with a comically self-obsessed lout played by Jon Hamm. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, she was the object of the title character's daydreams - a co-worker whom Mitty (Ben Stiller) imagined to be full of dazzle and daring, but who, in reality, lived with her pooch, not much going on.
So it makes perfect sense for Wiig to go inside-out, to address the sadness head-on. Which she does, with deft comic grace notes, in Hateship Loveship, Liza Johnson's nicely tuned, and turned, adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage."
The film begins with Wiig's Johanna Parry, a single caregiver, heading for a new town and a new job tending house for a gruff grampa (Nick Nolte) and his high school-age granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). We learn that Sabitha's father, Ken, is a disaster. Played with a bad smoker's cough and big tattoos by Guy Pearce, Ken is an ex-con who's in Narcotics Anonymous and lives in an empty fleabag Chicago motel that he bought with borrowed money. He says he wants to fix the place up, make it viable.
Sabitha's mother is dead, which is why the girl lives with her grandfather, who has reasons aplenty not to want Ken around. Nolte, with a snowy beard and Midwestern squint, shoots judgmental glares Pearce's way.
In an act of the impossible cruelty that can be perpetrated only by unthinking teens, Sabitha and her best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), start corresponding with Johanna - as Ken. The e-mails become more and more intimate, until Johanna has it in her mind that Ken is head over heels for her.
The suspense in Hateship Loveship is palpable: What will Johanna do? Forsake her job and head for Chicago? How will Ken, clueless in most respects, respond if she arrives? What about his coke-snorting girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who else?)? And when/if Sabitha and her grinning pal are found out, what then?
Hateship Loveship teeters on the brink of dread - things could go terribly wrong for Johanna. But the spirit of the film, and Munro's story, is more generous. And Wiig somehow finds just the right place, and space, for Johanna to exist, as dauntless as she is naive.
And maybe, in the end, she's not so naive at all.
Hateship Loveship *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Liza Johnson. With Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Nolte, Sami Gayle. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, drugs, adult themes).
Playing at: PFS at the Roxy.EndText