Marital drama stumbles in atmospheric ‘Take This Waltz’
Is there something innately unsatisfying about long-term married love? Does familiarity breed contempt or content? These are some of the issues raised in Take This Waltz, the second feature film directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley. (The first was the poised, heartbreaking Away From Her.)
There are random moments of insight and feeling throughout the film, largely thanks to (yet) another exceptional performance by Michelle Williams, and a fine supporting cast. But at other times, the entire house of cards threatens to collapse under the weight of its own intentions.
Working from her own original script, Polley spins a tale of lust and longing during a hot, sticky summer in Toronto. Twenty-eight-year-old Margot (Williams), is a woman who seems to be enjoying a fun, giggly, five-year marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), who’s writing a cookbook about chicken recipes. They play a verbal sparring game that begins with “I love you so much,” then they try to top each other describing the gruesome ways each will maim and murder the other. Like most couples, they’re not always on exactly the same page at the same time when it comes to intimacy, but they seem genuinely fond of each other.
After a visit to an 18th Century fort in Montreal (where historical reenactors invite her to help “flog” a faux adulterer), Margot shares a plane flight with Daniel (Luke Kirby). Something sparks between them as they chat and tease each other on the plane, but it’s all a harmless nothing—until they share a cab in from the airport and Margot discovers that Daniel lives right across the street from her and Lou in the suburbs.
Margot throws herself back into her life with Lou, eating the chicken dinners he cooks and helping to entertain his large, boisterous family. She is particularly close to her little niece, daughter of Lou’s sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), a wisecracking recovering alcoholic—sober for one month. It may be that Margot wants a child of her own, but she and Lou can’t even commit to getting a dog.
Meanwhile, Daniel keeps intruding into her thoughts—not surprising, since she sees him trotting by her house every morning, hauling the rickshaw-for-hire by which he makes his living. Pretty soon, she’s getting up early to run into him “accidentally;” they take walks, go out for coffee, she even briefly visits his house (of course, in private life he’s an artist) in a series of increasingly incendiary, yet technically innocent encounters. Both actors are excellent in these sequences; Williams’ face melts with flustered, giddy excitement when they have what amounts to phone sex, without the phone, face-to-face in a bar.
The question becomes whether or not they will act on their impulses, and if or how Margot will justify it to herself. And this is where Polley can’t quite seal the deal, plotwise. Most of what we know about Margot is hearsay: Daniel says she seems “restless in a kind of permanent way.” A Greek chorus of naked women in the shower at the public pool after water aerobics class discuss stale relationships in terms of “shiny” new things that eventually “get old.”
But as to Margot’s own inner workings, we have very little clue. Is she tired of her life or unfulfilled by Lou? (Or just sick of chicken?) When she reveals things about herself, they sound overly scripted (in airports, she’s “afraid of connections … afraid I’ll miss it”), or too vague to mean anything. When she says sometimes she wants to cry and can’t figure out why, neither can we. Polley seems to believe the five-year-itch cycle she’s describing is so prevalent, it doesn’t require any kind of deeper exploration.
The spirit of Leonard Cohen hovers over the whole enterprise like a defrocked patron saint; his eponymous ballad of obsessive desire, “Take This Waltz,” plays during a critical sequence, and the soundtrack is salted with many other rocky-voiced folk and pop balladeers who lend an air of vaguely questing edginess. But except for some startlingly effective moments (like the montage of freefall gut reactions that tumble out of Rogen’s Lou when he thinks Margot may want to leave him ), it’s mostly brooding atmosphere that just misses genuine resonance.
TAKE THIS WALTZ
★★1/2 (out of four)
With Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Luke Kirby.
Written and directed by Sarah Polley. A Magnolia release. Rated R. 116 minutes.