Take this WaltzReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/13/12 12:16:10
On the surface, "Take This Waltz" is a film that would seem to have all the elements that one could hope to find in a movie these days, especially if they are looking for an alternative to the blockbuster multiplex fare that is otherwise dominating the season. For staters, it stars Michelle Williams, whose position as one of the best young actresses around surely needs no debate, and includes the usually reliable Seth Rogen in a key supporting role. It is the second directorial effort from Sarah Polley, an excellent actress in her own right who branched off behind the camera a few years ago with the haunting and touching Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her," and is based on a screenplay that she wrote that was included in one of those lists of the best unproduced screenplays a few years ago. Hell, it even takes its title from a classic tune from the legendary Leonard Cohen. Combine all of those elements, add in the raves that it received from many critics during its tour of the festival circuit and you pretty much have the art-house equivalent of "The Dark Knight Returns" in terms of anticipation based on solid credentials and previous achievements instead of mere hype. And yet, "Take This Waltz" not only does not work despite all of the aforementioned qualities, it doesn't work in such strange and inexplicable ways that I found myself more baffled than angry and wondering at certain points as to whether there was some key fundamental piece to the puzzle that I did not get that was keeping me from fully understanding it.Williams stars as Margot, a young Toronto woman who has been married for a few years to Lou (Rogen), a genial goof of a guy who makes his living writing cookbooks specializing entirely in ways to prepare chicken. On the surface, she seems perfectly content with her life but there are signs, such as certain intimacy issues with her husband, that suggest that there is a certain degree of dissatisfaction bubbling underneath the surface that she chooses not to acknowledge. One day, while on a visit by herself to a historical theme park, she winds up having a Meet Cute with a blandly handsome stranger and later, while flying home, she winds up sitting next to that very same guy on the plane. This is struggling artist Daniel (Luke Kirby) and their low-key flirting continues through a shared cab ride until Margot reveals that she is married and Daniel reveals that he lives literally across the street from her and Lou and works as a rickshaw driver in order to pay the bills. (Don't laugh--this is apparently an incredibly lucrative profession if one is to judge by the amount of square footage that he has.) For Margot, she has hit the jackpot because now she has two guys who are willing to put up with her poor-little-waif routine indefinitely as she dithers between stick with the safe-but-familiar Lou or the new-and-fascinating (relatively) Daniel, who tries to win his way into her heart (among other parts) with a program that veers between trips to the local carnival and endless monologues about the things he would eventually like to do to her. Finally, Margot makes a decision about her life and without going into to many details, it takes an already messy and unconvincing narrative and almost completely derails the whole thing, or would have if it had not left the rails much earlier in the proceedings.
As I said earlier, because of my genuine respect for Polley and Williams, I found myself genuinely mystified by "Take This Waltz" and I even went back and watched it a second time to see if I was just having an off-moment and that it would finally click for me. That didn't happen but that second viewing at least help me focus more clearly on what it was that I didn't like about the film itself, starting (and almost ending) with the fact that I found Margot to be one of the most disagreeable and unlikable characters that I have seen in a putatively serious-minded movie in a while. Now I am not one of those people who believes that one has to like the people in a movie in order to like the movie itself. For example, Daniel Day Lewis played one of the most monstrous characters of all time in Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood" and that didn't hurt that film in the slightest. The difference is that Plainview. was so fascinating in his vileness and unlikability that viewers were willing to follow along on his journey. More recently, the brilliant and wildly ambitious "Margaret" (which has just debuted on home video and which deserves your immediate attention) also centers on a spectacularly abrasive and self-absorbed individual but that film told a story that critiqued her particular mindset and behavior while still making her seem like a real person with authentic flaws that viewers could recognize and understand despite everything she does to herself and others.
By comparison, Margot may not be as loathsome (though many viewers may have the urge to bop her, themselves or the person who suggested seeing the film with the nearest bowling pin) but in her own way, she is pretty much annoying across the board. Based on what we see here, she has no evident interests other than her own self-interest, she chooses to infantilize herself whenever she can (she acts at least a decade younger than her stated age of 28 throughout and even pees in a swimming pool at one point) and seems hell-bent on redefining passive-aggressive for a new generation. Sure, she may be cute and pixie-like and looks great in the shower scene that is likely to be the film's enduring legacy but in real life, she would send even her most ardent admirers running for the hills after a week or two or pricing wood chippers. This might have worked if the film were meant to criticize such behavior, or at the very least attempted to explain or understand it, but Polley seems to want us to just accept it and after a while, the character's solipsism just becomes too much for any movie to bear. (To be fair, Margot is treated in a slightly more critical manner in the final reels but for most viewers, this will come as far too little far too late.)
Another problem with "Take This Waltz" is the performance of Michelle Williams--actually, it is more the presence of Michelle Williams than anything else. As anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years, Williams has gone from being the blonde on "Dawson's Creek" to one of the most acclaimed actresses around thanks to her work in films such as "Brokeback Mountain," "Wendy & Lucy," "Meek's Cutoff" and "My Week with Marilyn," to name but a few of her more significant accomplishments. No matter what the character, she invests each role with an intelligence and dignity that allows viewers to fully understand who she is playing and what she is trying to get across, no matter how removed those roles may be from their own existence. The trouble here is that, in playing a character who is timid, indecisive, thinks only of herself and engages in childlike behavior at best, she is essentially playing someone who is emotionally still a teenager, and not a particularly intelligent or interesting one at that, and Williams is essentially incapable of playing someone like that in a convincing manner. Even when she was playing actual teenagers, as she did in the delightful and shamefully underrated "Dick" (the Watergate-era comedy that found her character developing a massive crush on none other than Richard Nixon himself) she made that absurdity plausible by playing the character as a real person of treating her as a cartoon, a move that helped to make things even funnier in the long run as well.
Here, she is playing someone who, if you encountered her at your neighborhood coffee shop, would cause you to immediately switch to another establishment as quickly as possible. She is whiny, self-absorbed, melodramatic (she is so afraid of missing airplane connections--or is it that she is afraid of being afraid of missing airplane connections--that she fakes an injury so that she can be pushed around the airport in a wheelchair so that she doesn't have to worry about taking even the slightest responsibility for her own actions), juvenile and far too enamored of herself for anyone to take seriously as an actual person for more than a few minutes. As the film went on, it struck me that Williams was having as much trouble believing in the character as I was because she always felt as if she were merely playing a part that she felt no real connection to--this coming from someone who once transformed the myth that was Marilyn Monroe into a plausible and vulnerable human being. As I have mentioned before, Williams is a wonderful actress but for anyone to be able to pull off a role such as this, the material really needs to be there on the page and that isn't the case here--this may be the least plausible character that she has played since she appeared as the younger version of the the alien-human hybrid in "Species"--and the result is a performance that, for all of the hard work and dedication that she has clearly brought to the roll, is not so much a tour de force as it is an endurance test that no one winds up winning.As I mentioned earlier, I have seen "Take This Waltz" twice and after both viewings, I came away from it feeling dislike but not disinterest, I must admit. I disliked it because I felt that Sarah Polley had inexplicably made a film that presented us with a trite screenplay (the aforementioned scene on the airplane involving the discussion about being afraid of missing connections and being caught between things is such a groaner that it almost comes across as a joke), a supremely irritating central character and enough whimsy to supply ten other films that you wouldn't want to see on a dare. That said, it does have occasional flashes of brilliance (such as the final appearances of the Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman characters and a gorgeous bit involving a carnival ride and the deft deployment of the Buggles' classic "Video Killed the Radio Star") and besides, even though it did irritate me from start to finish, I can't say that I was ever bored while watching it--at least not in the usual ways. I wouldn't even go so far as to dissuade you from seeing it if it sounded like something that might be up your alley because enough other people whose opinions I respect have been raving over it to the extent that it may just be a simple case of my not getting it in some basic way. All I know is that this summer has already been filled with one cinematic disappointment after another and by squandering the dream pairing of the supremely talented Sarah Polley and Michelle Williams, "Take This Waltz" might well prove to be the most frustrating of the bunch.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|