Monday, July 9, 2012

Review: "Take This Waltz"

In one critical early scene of Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley's follow-up to her acclaimed debut Away From Her, Margot (Michelle Williams) tells Daniel (Luke Kirby) that she hates being in between things. The statement proves to be true, and it echoes out across the film in multiple ways. Waltz is decidedly lighter than Away From Her, though it still boasts Polley's keen powers of observation when it comes to details that exist between couples or among family members. Yet where Away From Her had a general sense of forward momentum that built to a point surrounding its central characters, Polley gets a little lost in the details of Take This Waltz. As a result, her sophomore effort, despite containing any number of admirable aspects, feels redundant and overly long, its point(s) lost among the details.

Williams's Margot is a freelance writer living in Toronto, who's married to a cookbook author (Seth Rogen). The couple have any number of little tics, including their own forms of teasing and baby talk, as well as an inside joke where they describe fanciful ways to torture each other. While returning from a short trip/assignment, Margot meets Kirby's Daniel, and the two hit it off in a weird sort of way (she doesn't seem to mind his semi-aggressive taunts). As it turns out, Daniel is a neighbor of Margot's, living just across the street, and working as a rickshaw operator around town. As the two interact more and more, Margot examines her marriage and contemplates the possibility of doing more with Daniel than just chit-chatting. And of course, there's a bit of a moral. That's where things start to head south.

The central problem with Take This Waltz is that we get an understanding of the film's main question and message so early, yet the film remains stuck in a drawn-out period of inaction. For about 3/4ths of its 2 hour duration, the film is basically on a loop of scenes illustrating Margot's relationship with her husband and her slowly (sloooooooooooowly) budding relationship with Daniel. Rather than make the point and move on, Polley insists on making sure that the audience has five or six opportunities to "get it," throwing in stolen glances and casually pained expressions that ought to register much more than they really do. At one point Dan casts a glance of heartfelt longing at Margot, and I was tempted to let out a laugh to relieve myself of the crushing obviousness of the scene's attempt at greater importance.

And once the film gets to its big moment, set to the titular Leonard Cohen song, there's little that's surprising about the outcome. We've known the moral of the story for so long that by the time it arrives (however impressive the execution) it's difficult not to be left thinking, "well, duh." Worse, the film decides to chug on for almost another half hour before drawing to a close. Thankfully, it gives Margot a clear arc, but the journey to the end of said arc is too damn long for its own good. Barring a dramatically convenient subplot involving Margot's pseudo ex-alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman), everything progresses exactly as we expect it to, without the necessary dramatic tautness to make it feel like a worthwhile journey.

That's not to say that Take This Waltz is without its merits. Williams is wonderful in the role, taking Margot's conflicted feelings (along with the above-mentioned fear of the in between) and fleshing them out with a radiant subtlety. In different hands, the character could have felt frustratingly inert. While that remains true of many scenes, it's most certainly not true about Williams' work, which is always striving to make Margot's developing dilemma feel like it's progressing (no matter how minimal the progress). The rest are in fine form as well. Rogen and Kirby both make effective opposites, with Rogen personifying a warm (albeit purposefully stagnant) sense of comfort, while Kirby has just the right touch of excitement about him without being over the top. Some of the material Kirby has can feel tone deaf, but even then the actor remains quite watchable. The surprise, despite her limited time, is Silverman, who invests a surprising amount of nuance into her role. This isn't a case of silly stunt casting where a comedian is stuck playing herself. Silverman brings a nice bit of gravitas to an underdeveloped character, one whose struggles probably deserve their own film (in case Ms. Polley ever decides to make a sequel or spin-off...). Even when the material falters, and it does falter quite a bit, these four significant roles hit just about all of the right notes, and at times it's enough to overcome the glaring weaknesses.

Credit should also go to the technical side of the film. Forgoing the idea that small films need to have a bland, washed out look, Take This Waltz positively pops with a summery glow, bolstered by the cinematography's emphasis of colors like red and green. The soundtrack is also a nice touch, if a bit cliched, all quiet guitar twangs and the like. When these elements gel with what works, Take This Waltz proves quite compelling. Unfortunately, the film is a bit of reverse Impressionism. The individual pieces work up close, but once you step back to look at the work as a whole, nothing ever comes together quite like it should.

Grade: C+/C

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