Sometimes trying to convey the reality of romantic relationships isn’t something that’s inherently cinematic. Such is the biggest criticism that can be levied against Canadian actress Sarah Polley’s second feature directorial effort, Take This Waltz. While dealing with some thematically interesting material, the atonal nature of the production runs into severe structural problems in the final third of the film and the pacing feels more slapdash than assured. Consistently well acted and almost daring in how it chooses to make the audience side with someone that’s almost thoroughly unlikable, there’s almost enough here to overcome the faults but there’s still something unnerving in its one-sided approach.
In this snapshot of being young, confused, and unhappily married, Margot (Michelle Williams) finds herself smitten with an artist and rickshaw driver named Daniel (Luke Kriby) that she never knew lived across the street despite being married to the sweet and good natured cookbook writer, Lou (Seth Rogen) she finds herself wed to. Her relationship with Lou has grown stagnant and complacent to the point where even their insults to each other have become baby talk, while the decidedly more seductive and alluring Daniel promises a life of uncertainty, which Margot constantly debates pursing just out of the hope of feeling something grand again in her life.
While Williams effectively acts as a vessel for lust and confusion, it’s hard to really understand just what she sees in Daniel and almost impossible not to see her as a petulant brat who simply doesn’t know what she wants. There’s something almost sociopathic about the way she creeps around and strings Daniel along and how she only wants to be with Lou on her own exacting terms. These are undoubtedly two way streets in both relationships, but since writer and director Polley places Margot front and centre in every scene of the film, it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness that nothing will ultimately work out that well for any of them. As a character Margot seems to always choose the moral highground that adapts to the people around her. She’ll go to a water aerobics class before cracking up over how silly it all is and when making small talk with Daniel she almost uncharacteristically leers at him and calls him gay for not making the first move. It doesn’t help that the one attempt the film makes at confronting Margot (and by proxy all of the film’s characters) on their bullshit comes far too late in a film that’s already gone on too long by way of a speech from Lou’s alcoholic sister (played by a miscast, but still okay Sarah Silverman) that should be cathartic for the audience to hear, but instead really changes nothing.
As for the males of the cast, Rogen has the better performance in a lesser character, but the movie goes to such pains to make him out to be such a shlubby loser (Damn you for being a really, really nice guy! How dare you ever try to be like that, you boring shmuck!) that Polley kind of robs him of any chance to grieve over the potential of losing his love. The few scenes where he does get to do some dramatic work feel truncated to get back to the real focal point of the story, robbing the audience of any sort of sympathy or understanding for either side of the argument.
Kirby does what the role of Daniel requires on the paper and not much more because he’s supposed to be this sort of grand seducer; a man who just has enough interesting qualities and hobbies to make him alluring and enough wit and artistic know-how to seem sensual. A sexually graphic talk between Daniel and Margot over untouched martinis yields one of the best visceral reactions of the film for two great reasons. It establishes quite rightfully that as a character, Daniel is all artifice since even talking a good game still isn’t enough at that point to make Margot cheat on her husband. It also shows in her going along with the fantasy just how immature at heart Margot still is that she would allow such smooth talk to work on her. In this sequence the lines of characterization become firmly drawn with Margot acting as the romantic, Daniel as the horndog, and Lou (by virtue of his irrelevance to the scene) coming out looking like the pragmatic middle ground between the two.
Special consideration here should also be given to Polley who still shows incredible strength as a director even if her script gets away from her. She proves again here that she’s extremely capable of blending pop sensibilities, a great knack for visual composition, and the ability to make tough choices about characters that lead actors to great performances. It’s strange to say that someone has such an assured touch with such unsound material, but Polley definitely has a great future ahead of her behind the camera and despite the nature of the film’s inhabitants, Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood actually seems inviting and not as insufferably trendy as it actually is
Still, no matter one’s personal feelings towards the characters the material here is far more cut and dry than Polley seems willing to admit. The titular dance between Daniel and Margot drags out for far too long, leading to a film that could have ended six or seven times before it actually does and in far more emotionally weighted ways. The film doesn’t even try to explain behaviours that some audience members might roll their eyes at, but instead drags them out for no real good reason. It becomes almost impossible to tell if Polley wants us to sympathize with Margot’s malaise or chastise her since tonally the final 20 minutes or so makes it seem like the former, but the languid pace seems to suggest the latter. If the point is to make the parallel that both wedded bliss and adulterous lust both run a tried course, maybe speeding things up would have helped a bit.
More thematically interesting than good, Take This Waltz is the rare breed of film that strives for realism in individual sequences, but it never fully comes together as a total package. Audiences will definitely feel something watching the film, which is more than I can say about most of the films to come out this summer, and especially of Canadian cinema this year in general, but if the purpose was to make them feel the same confusion as its main character, the message certainly isn’t equal to the medium in which its being relayed. It’s not bad or even inert, but more often than not it borders on forced provocation than an organic construction of relationships simultaneously in recline and bloom.