In her second directorial effort, Take This Waltz, the veteran actress Sarah Polley gets fresh performances from her quartet of lead actors. Michelle Williams is wide-eyed and innocent as Margot, the confused young wife. Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby, who are Canadian like the writer-filmmaker and the setting, turn on the charm as Lou and Daniel, Margot's loving husband and the artistic young man across the street who causes her to cheat on him. Comic and writer Sarah Silverman has a welcome edge as Lou''s alcoholic sister Geraldine. But the charm fades fast when except for the wised-up Geraldine these characters turn out to be insufferably child-like and precious. The two-hour runtime starts to seem endless.
They resort to childish games and rarely have a real conversation about anything of substance. They are all goofy emotion, which they either declare excessively (you'll lose count of the "I love you's"), or run away from. When Daniel and Margot have just met they show their affinity in a taxicab by dangling an object on a string and blowing it back and forth between them. If this is supposed to be inventive on their part and show instant intimacy, it just seems superficial and juvenile. Margot neglects to say she's married till she gets out of the cab. Maybe Daniel knows if he lives across the street. But nothing has really been said. This is a meet-cute that is all cute.
Take This Waltz also suffers from blatantly telegraphed plot devices that undermine the authentic emotional feel of the scenes. Polley spells out the plot baldly at the very outset by planting Margot across the country at a colonial re-creation in which a man in 18th-century costume is publicly humiliated for "Adultery," the sign around his neck. She has Margot and Daniel, the new man who will tempt her into marital infidelity, clash at this history tableau and then be seated next to each other on the plane coming home, share a cab from the airport, and turn out to live across the street from each other. Par for the course in a Hollywood rom-com, but this is supposed to be something original.
Though Luke Kirby is present and alive in his scenes with Williams, Daniel is given a too-cute occupation, pulling a rickshaw, somehow weirdly out of place in this suburban setting, and this alternates, à la Miranda July, with his being a timid artist, which he's also pretentious about. "So you're an artist," says Margot, visiting his flat. (Duh!) "No, I'm a painter," says Daniel.
The dangerous possibility of the husband's dullness is screamed at us. As if Seth Rogen himself were not the embodiment of nice, good-natured cloddishness, the script requires him to be in the kitchen cooking the same dish ever day. And as if that weren't enough, at the couple's fifth wedding anniversary dinner, which Daniel too-cutely rickshaw-rides them to, Lou has nothing at all to say to his wife other than a little speech justifying a shutdown of communication as a sign of perfect love -- and communication. This is an interesting falsehood, which might have been explored in a smarter film.
This attraction to another man when a perfectly good one is at hand is a typical Eric Rohmer situation. Rohmer, however, would establish the circumstances and advance the action in half the time by staging intelligent conversations between the parties involved. Not a bad idea. Nobody is having sex through most of this picture, so some good chats wouldn't have gotten in the way of anything hot and heavy. The inarticulate mugging and childish game-playing that take the place of Rohmer's articulate talk leave everything suspended, while Lou is stuck in the kitchen cooking chicken, researching a recipe book.
He is the only one who has anything like a serious job, and its seeming monotony underlines the problem in red ink: if Lou and Margot are a happy, loving couple, is living in a happy, loving marriage a dull existence? Could that be? Lacking the rational discourse they'd have access to in an Eric Rohmer movie, this couple never manages to figure out what's wrong, even though all they do between goo-goo games is shower, go to bed and eat chicken.
Geraldine, the alcoholic, temporarily sober sister, exists, alas, only for the few moments in which she shows us that people need to be drunk to speak the truth, or at least to blurt out the key fact that Margot is being a damned fool.
As good as Polley is with the emotional, inarticulate moments, she is inept at action. Seeing himself as a third wheel (he and Margot haven't had the great sex he fantasizes to her about over martinis), Daniel moves away, but what happens after that, lost in the blur of a fantasy montage, is left unclear and unsatisfying.
In its neurotic aw-shucks progress the film keeps us guessing, but Polley squanders the curiosity she arouses by resorting to montages that seem just a mixture of wish-fulfillment and vague musings. Take This Waltz has a unique touch, but unlike Polley's acclaimed debut Away from Her, which was anchored by the impressive Julie Christie as a beautiful wife developing Alzheimer's, it doesn't feel like a finished film.
As Margot, the main character, Michelle Williams is a vivid bunch of confused moments, sweet and attractive but not a whole person. Something is missing alright, as Daniel says early on. As an actress, Williams can seem just a character looking for a personality: this made her good as Marilyn Monroe. We feel Williams herself has suffered, because she was involved with Heath Ledger at the time of his tragic death, but we don't always see depth in her beyond a profound insecurity. She needs an intense actor like Ryan Gosling to play off as she did in the more interesting, disturbing and real Blue Valentine. A grown-up male might ask Margot to come back in a few years when she's figured out who she is. Lou and Daniel should both run in the opposite direction.
Maybe Lou, Daniel, and Margot are a lot better than they seem, but Polley doesn't give them lives, only a series of expressions and gestures. Seth Rogen's sweet, goofy, dull Lou does accomplish something, though. He finishes his chicken cookbook and it sells well.
The film was shot during a swelteringly hot Toronto summer by Luc Montpellier in a postcard-bright style that's another mannered effort to be original, along with the odd behavior. Though Polley's debut erred in the direction of over-sweetness in its adaptation of a short story, its fine performance by Julie Christie and challenging subject matter made it a surprisingly mature piece of work. Take This Waltz, with its annoying quirk and undue length, seems like a distinct regression.
Take This Waltz debuted at Toronto in September 2011. It opened in the US and Canada June 29, 2012, and comes out in the UK August 17.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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