I’m still wondering if I liked this movie.
It’s quiet and unassuming, much like the drab and dull caretaker character played by Kristen Wiig (who’s so retiring the costume designer actually wraps her up in beige). Sent to help an elderly man (Nick Nolte) care for his granddaughter who lives with him (mother dead, father recently released from prison), the mousey Johanna becomes privy to family secrets and hungers for some kind of belonging. The granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld) pulls a mean prank on Johanna and starts up a fake correspondence, ostensibly from her father (played by Guy Pearce). Naively, Johanna quickly falls in love and goes to him.
It’s at this point that I started to feel like I knew this story, that I had read it in some very similar, too similar to be coincidence, but not quite the same, form. And it’s true. It’s based on an Alice Munro story called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, although you have to smudge the details a bit, such as replacing “rural Canada” with “Chicago.”
So Johanna treks out to remote, inaccessible Chicago to be with the man she loves, but who has no idea they’ve been involved in an online relationship. There she finds a coke addict and a thief, but she decides to stay and soon plain Johanna has a green emerald dress and (hello, metaphor!) you know what that means – she is transformed.
The film has a pretty strong cast of supporting characters but I’m not sure I bought Wiig as Johanna. Her dowdiness is expressed in mannerisms familiar to her fans – she started many a character is much the same way, eyes fluttering downward, pursed lips, negative space. So her performance felt a little like an SNL skit without the punchline. Serviceable, but ultimately unsatisfying.
So I guess my feelings toward this movie are as tepid as the movie itself. It veers away from the source material in interesting but fundamentally disappointing ways. Whoever thought they could improve on Munro’s ending should be shot. Munro is much more comfortable with things left unsaid; she trusts her readers to draw their own conclusions. Liza Johnson, the not-so-fearless director, does not. She leaves us with a generic, happy ending instead.