Sunday, November 25, 2012

Take This Waltz Movie Review

“New things get old.” So says an older woman to a group of younger women in Sarah Polley’s second directorial feature, Take This Waltz. The scene has three younger women showering, their bodies in full view of the camera, alongside a group of older women for whom time has quite clearly caught up with their bodies, wrinkled and sagging as they are. Yes, new things get old, whether we’re talking about the supple physical beauty of youth or a husband after five years of marriage. One of those young women needs to keep this refrain in mind as she considers an affair with a neighbor.

That young woman is Margot and her husband is Lou. To see them together is to be envious of what appears to be a loving marriage. But Polley sets us up to favor the neighbor as the object of Margot’s affection by opening the film with an extended Meet Cute that has them sitting next to each other on a flight back to Toronto and then sharing a taxi home where they discover they live across the street from one another. If you know nothing about the film before seeing it, this is the moment when you discover she’s married, a fact she blurts out to their mutual disappointment.

I suppose by casting Michelle Williams as Margot, Polley intended to instill conflict in her audience. Because Williams is an actress who almost always elicits our sympathies with her natural charm and all around nice girl demeanor, we are almost primed to side with her even as she crosses ethical lines with a man not her husband. As Lou, Polley cast the comic actor Seth Rogen. His acting chops are not yet up to such dramatic challenges, but he’s a lovable lug and a guy who looks like he would be insecure every day he spends with a woman like Williams. I, however, did not feel sympathetic toward Margot and perhaps that’s part of why Take This Waltz totally failed for me. I looked at her life and marriage – yes, it lacked some elements of passion and excitement that we find in a new relationship, but there seems to be genuine love and still a desire to make each other laugh – and saw a relationship worth sticking with. There is no flaw Lou exhibits, except possibly a naivete about what’s been going on between Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby) across the street. We are supposed to see a young woman caught between two excellent choices of men. I’m not sure we’re meant to think about the fact that she’s made a solemn promise to one of them to be together forever.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film was its setting, which is in a trendy neighborhood somewhere in Polley’s hometown of Toronto. I’m not sure how Margot, a freelance writer currently working on a tourist brochure, and Lou, working on a chicken cookbook, can afford to live in this place. To be sure, they make more money than Daniel, an artist who is too cowardly to sell his art and so makes his only apparent living from hauling a rickshaw around. Such is life in the movies, you know. Still, the neighborhood is alive and feels like a real place.

Polley definitely fell into a sophomore slump after her incredibly touching portrayal of the pain of watching your partner fade into Alzheimer’s in Away From Her. For her second film, her writing has become amateurish, like a high school student trying to impress her teacher. Her characters speak in obvious metaphors. Margot explains to Daniel that she has this terrible fear of missed connections…in airports. Hint, hint. Get it? And that’s just in the first five minutes. There’s more to come for the next 110 minutes, which brings me to a side point: Take This Waltz is about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be. There was a moment when I thought the movie was over. Had it finished in that spot, it would be a vastly different movie, albeit one I still disliked, but not quite as much.

Polley’s handling of the direction is languid and dull. There’s one scene that demonstrates a real creative hand near the end, showing Margot’s progression over a period of several months after leaving Lou. It uses a camera that revolves around Margot 360 degrees several times, subtly jump cutting as the camera passes behind furniture and pillars. Apart from that, the film moves at a snail’s pace, which is not in itself a bad thing, but when combined with such a pedestrian screenplay it became insufferable. It was also a miscalculation writing the character of Lou’s sister, played by Sarah Silverman as an alcoholic. The entire purpose for her existence in the film is so that she can fall off the wagon after Margot has left Lou so we and Margot can see that leaving your loving husband is morally indefensible while an alcoholic taking a drink after a year of sobriety is in her nature. What exactly was Polley trying to say with this scene? That alcoholics who fall off the wagon are better people than adulterers? It was simply baffling and a total waste of Silverman’s great comic talent.

I expected much more from a film that could have been a great character study. I knew within the first ten minutes that I really didn’t want to continue wasting my time. But in the interest of being true to my own values, I carried forth because you never know when a film might hit you with a surprise. Now I can’t get that time back.

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