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.
Most days he can be found ranting against the way the world and its inhabitants, primarily his son-in-law Ken (Pearce), always disappoint. His late daughter and his beloved granddaughter Sabitha (Steinfeld) represent his connection to Ken and their divide. Caring for Sabitha is Johanna's reason for joining the household.
At first it seems the conflict is going to be tied to the friction between the teenager and Johanna, another unwanted authority figure. Rebellion takes a nasty turn when Edith (Sami Gayle), Sabitha's observant best friend, notices Johanna's reaction to a small kindness Ken extends during his brief visit.
The plot thickens and the girls get their platform when Ken includes a brief thank you note to the solitary Johanna inside a letter to his daughter. The teenagers, pretending to be Ken, begin a correspondence with her that grows increasingly intimate. Johanna never suspects she's being played.
But the real conflict is in the contradictions between perception and reality. Johanna's shyness and insecurities are so visible, it is easy to miss the strength and resilience underneath. The film banks on turning Wiig dowdy and nearly silent, to do the trick. That dowdy look has been extended to every corner of the film, from the McCauleys' relative affluence to Ken's relative decline. Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser and production designer Hannah Beachler handle all the dressing down for director of photography Kasper Tuxen ("Beginners") to capture.
Just as beauty isn't skin deep, neither is plainness. But rather than sifting through the emotional layers of a surprisingly determined young woman, more often the scenes feel drained of life.
Playing around with situations that tend to end badly is a Munro specialty, leaving you guessing where things are going until the story decides to get there. Suffice it to say, Johanna makes a choice that upends the status quo and sends everyone scrambling. Other women enter the picture — Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ken's on-and-off lover, and Eileen (Christine Lahti), who's eyeing McCauley. But like so much else about "Hateship," neither gains real traction.
"Hateship" turns on what happens when the roguish reprobate is overtaken by Johanna's unwavering determination. That's where most of the film's tension should reside. Confusions, excitement, resentment, resistance, fear, something. Instead what exists between Pearce and Wiig is mostly empty space.
Things really go off the rails as the director starts tying up the loose ends Munro left so wonderfully unraveled. "Hateship Loveship" needed many things, but a Hollywood ending wasn't one of them.
MPAA rating: R for drug use, some sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood