Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Big Review: "Take This Waltz"

At this point, I'd pay to watch Michelle Williams pay her bills. One of my favorite movies this year. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

In the opening minutes of Take This Waltz, the movie's young protagonist comments that she doesn’t like "being in between things." Mmm. Even when life is good, it's a long, hard slog toward happily ever after. Director-writer Sarah Polley's condescension-free drama presents a stirring, searing portrait of a woman destined for disappointment.

Margot (Michelle Williams) is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a likable cookbook writer whose specialty is chicken dishes. The couple lives in a charming house in a trendy, colorful Toronto neighborhood. They seem happy together, though after five years of marriage complacency has set in: eating in front of the TV, going to the bathroom together. In short, they're like everybody else.

After a business trip, Margot isn't so sure. She ran into a handsome, confident stranger (Luke Kirby) whom she ended up sitting next to on the plane ride home. The shameless flirting continued when they shared a cab. Before exiting, she put an end to the fantasy sabbatical. "I'm married," she says. "It's too bad," Daniel responds, "because I live here."

A week ago, Margot didn't know Daniel, an artist and rickshaw operator, existed. Now, he's everywhere. She gets up early to go food shopping and runs into him getting ready for work. He invites her to his place for coffee. "You seem restless, not now but in a kind of permanent way," he says. She talks of being suddenly sad when she submits to the beauty of the everyday. Daniel suggests that those feelings come from something less abstract. His directness is a warning to Margot—stay away—that she misses. Perhaps she only sees positive messages in allegories. In any case, she becomes hopelessly enamored with Daniel.

Thanks to Polley's confidence with the material, Margot isn't a dope or a victim. She's just hopelessly naïve. When she snuggles against Lou while he's cooking, she takes his rebuke seriously, not thinking that he might be too busy. Lou, moody and gruff, could be more affectionate, but he's a good man. He would come around sooner if Margot took initiative, which explains her infatuation with Daniel. He's always there. He shows up at a ridiculous aqua aerobics class, where a laughing jag causes Margot to pee in the pool. He talks dirty to her when they meet for martinis afterward. But she must commit to leaving Lou. She can't imagine eliminating her possibilities; the concept of could-have-been paralyzes her. The grass is greener everywhere. "It's [time] for you to do something," Daniel tells her, "not me." Believe it or not, Daniel is the movie's voice of reason, and his intentions with Margot aren't exactly noble.

Margot is not a particularly likable character, but Williams makes us care about her. The actress can worm inside the skin of sad souls (Blue Valentine, My Week with Marilyn) and bring out their despair with painful, poignant subtlety. Her work in Take This Waltz pads the resume. No one creates more impact with less histrionics than Williams; her use of expressions to convey everyday despair always amazes me. Rogen dampens his sarcasm to deliver a sympathetic performance that doesn’t wilt against Williams's ill-advised yearning. Kirby manages to be predator-like and dignified in his courtship. The biggest surprise here is Sarah Silverman. The comedian uses her bite to compelling effect as Margot's sister-in-law, who is a clear-eyed realist even when she's drunk. 

Polley doesn't fashion an I-told-you-so retort to every Kate Hudson movie as much as show that marriage is not a lifelong stretch of bliss. Sometimes it's boring. Sometimes it's fun. Occasionally there will be an argument…or no dialogue whatsoever. A handsome, artsy neighbor whom you see everywhere and a few sexless nights don't necessitate wholesale change. Movies frequently advise that breaking free from a cycle of blandness will lead to unimagined happiness. According to Polley (Away from Her), it's not that simple. It's easier, perfectly OK even, to revel in possibilities. Polley, in fact, presents Margot with multiple opportunities to opt for the lovely realm of what-if. It's a sign of how good Take This Waltz is that we pray Margot sees what Polley does—that all couples, regardless of how intoxicating their initial attraction, are together in the same way. [R] 

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