Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) gives an extraordinarily subtle performance as Johanna Parry, a housekeeper lacking almost anything resembling an actual personality. Having spent most of her life caring for an elderly woman, who passes away in the opening scene, Johanna has had almost no cause to interact with the world outside of her employer's house. However, it's not just that she's socially awkward due to unusual circumstances — this woman is a complete distillation of the maternal instinct and nothing else.
In need of a new sack of meat and bones to nurture, Johanna is recommended for a job looking after a teenage girl living with her grandfather. Like a developmentally delayed Mary Poppins, Johanna enters the lives of Sabitha (Hailee Steinfield, True Grit) and Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), eager to play mother, but unsure of how to relate to her charges. Even more than she needs to fill the role of caretaker though, Johanna desires a family of her own to fill her gaping void of purpose. The opportunity to pursue this desperate longing comes from an unlikely source.
When Sabitha and her best friend catch Johanna making googly eyes at Sabitha's estranged drug addict father, Ken (Guy Pearce), they set up a false letter-writing romance, convincing the naïve maid that he's instantly smitten with her. Misunderstandings ensue that are far more sad than comical, with Johanna disturbingly eager to be used, if it means she has a chance of getting what she ultimately wants. And what she so clearly desires is pure biological imperative divorced from any intellectual or emotional reasoning.
The way the film is constructed, it feels like Johnson sees this story as a bumpy romance and that's what's so disquieting about it. Johanna's extremely narrow motivation is heartbreaking, but she's depicted as someone that overcomes an obstacle rather than someone so empty she must find meaning in serving others. It's entirely possible that Johnson recognizes the despair behind this sad romance, but in Kristen Wiig's eyes and minute facial expressions are the only places where that's clearly evident.
Peripheral romances involving Nolte and a banker, and unspoken and unrequited sexual tension between Sabitha and her friend, are introduced then left to wither, while Johanna competes with a junky prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for Ken's affections. Lacking cohesion, these underdeveloped subplots don't lend any thematic support to whatever the director feels about her protagonist's actions, whether it's understanding, embarrassment or pity.
Save for an award-worthy performance by Wiig, Hateship Loveship is too uncertain of itself to recommend. (The Weinstein Company)