Take This Waltz Movie Review

Featuring: Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogan, Sarah Silverman
Writer/Director: Sarah Polley
Australian release date: June 14, 2012
Website: takethiswaltz.com
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen

Margo (Michelle Williams) is a would-be writer married to Lou (Seth Rogan), who writes cookbooks and cooks a lot of chicken. Their apparently happy marriage is placed under stress when Margo finds herself falling for Daniel, a closet artist who lives opposite and pulls a rickshaw for a living. Initially resistant, she yields to Daniel’s persuasions and begins to spend time with him behind Lou’s back. As the sexual tension between them becomes unbearable, she must decide whether to maintain the comfortable domestic life she and Lou have made for themselves, or to abandon home, friends and family to follow her pounding heart.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
If that story précis sounds drippy, be assured that it is. In a Hollywood romcom, no problem, but this is ‘realism’, man, as earnest as it gets, with indie written all over it. Which makes it all the harder to take.

I mean, really, shouldn’t we be expecting a bit more of realist cinema than to be buying into dumb romantic myths? Of course, sexual chemistry exists. And it is inevitable that parties in committed relationships are going to be attracted to others. Big deal. That’s biology for ya. Does that mean that a happily married woman is going to be sooo powerless in the grip of a Grand Passion for some mooning dickhead across the road that she’s going to chuck up five years of marriage just to see what he’s like in the cot?

The looming threat from Daniel would have more cred if Margo and Lou weren’t shown to be so compatible – or if Lou wasn’t such an affable, caring and decent bloke. Sure, they have their moments, such as when he shrugs her off when she’s making up to him while he’s cooking (surely understandable!), but overall they seem to have a lot of fun together in their cosy lived-in home, socialising with their friends, and doing the usual quiet stuff like watching TV together (evidently, for urban rager writer/director Polley, watching TV is a metaphor for a relationship gone humdrum). There are some indications that their sexual heat has dwindled, but so what? They’re not newlyweds.

“Not now, honey…”

The romantic fantasy that Margo and Daniel construct around each other burns with a slow – very slow – fuse for most of the movie, and when they finally reach detonation point the film alters course and timbre abruptly. From no-touch unrequited passion (including a sequence in a swimming pool that some might have found beautiful but that induced vomitus in me, the would-be lovers twirling in and out underwater like dolphins in a pre-mating ritual), we find ourselves in a soft-porn montage that is nothing short of ludicrous. There’s rutting to the left, rutting to the right, and – fark, what’s this…threesomes! Lawd save us. Is this supposed to be poor sheltered suburban Margo shakin’ off her shackles and discovering full sexual expression? Spose so…but how very 60s!

And how irritating the Margo and Daniel characters are! Margo, especially, drove me nuts with her girly, cutesy, quirky manner.

Or was it Michelle Williams that I was responding to? After her terrific take on Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, she’s back to her cutsie-poo, pigeon-toed, quirky, vulnerable, little-girl-lost persona as per her character in Blue Valentine. Yeah, I KNOW Blue Valentine was acclaimed as some sort of relationship-movie masterpiece. I thought it was indulgent and tedious, and I didn’t buy Michelle Williams’ ‘naturalistic’ acting, which came across to me as self-conscious, affected faux-improvisational stylism. And I found her simpering and ‘girly’. And that’s how she is in Take This Waltz. Many buy this act of hers, applaud it in fact, but I find myself wanting to slap her.

As for Daniel – what’s with the rickshaw? If he was a traveller doing a bit of novelty casual work while saving up for his next excursion, maybe. But nah, this is quirkiness for its own sake. And to that I say bleargh!

When he’s not pulling his rickshaw, this wanker seems to devote his days to sitting on his front step radiating Byronic stares at Margot’s window. And where are his friends? Would a tall, dark and handsome ‘artist’ who struts around with such cool really be a loner so struck by the married babe across the road that all he does in his spare time is plot to spend time with her and watch her every move? How does Margo see him as anything but creepy?

Then there’s the gaping logic flaws that riddle the script. Shit, there are so many, where do I start?

Look no further than the beginning! Margo loads some muffins into a pre-heated oven, then sits on the kitchen floor wistfully watching them bake – with her forehead resting against the glass! Huh? Maybe these guys should have turned the oven ON as well as the interior light. Then they’d have realised that the oven door gets too bloody hot during a bake for sustained skin contact!

Hot! Don’t touch, stoopid!

The scene is repeated at the end of the movie, albeit with a few differences to show that thangs have changed for Margo, yet have remained the same (real deep; this sort of self-conscious and smugly clever artistry is prevalent throughout). Narrative symmetry and chronological markers are all very well; bookending the screenplay with the same stupid logic flaw is not.

Unfortunately, there are a whole lot more airhead moments in between these opening and closing gaffs. Far too many to catalogue here. So I’ll just select a few for exemplification purposes.

When Margo and Daniel first strike up a conversation with each other on a Toronto-bound plane, he ventures: “You look familiar.” “Yah, you too” responds Margo. Well, they do live opposite each other! And Daniel is hardly inconspicuous, with his rickshaw. Could Margo really not have noticed him?

Then there’s the dramatic time confusion. In the early stages of the movie we learn that it’s August (ie: the last month of summer). Typically, it’s hot at this time in Toronto, where most of the action is set. This summer, it’s a veritable heatwave. Just to make sure we are in no doubt about that, there are multiple shots of whirring fans throughout. Not to mention Michelle Williams parading a wardrobe of flowery summer tent dresses of the type 15-year-olds wear to the beach. When she’s not floating about in those, she’s getting around all cute and pigeon-toed in short shorts.

Course, it’s not just the external temperature that’s cookin’. Margo and Daniel are fairly panting for each other! Thing is, we don’t need fans to reinforce that. We’re in no doubt about it! Especially when during a coffee meet-up Daniel describes in lurid detail to a breathless Margo his fantasy of ravaging her, right down to the final ecstatic moment: “When I enter you, I fuck you hard, harder than I intended because I can’t help it, and when we’re so crazy we can’t breathe and don’t even know where we are any more, I fill you with my cum.” That’s not verbatim, but close enough – you get the idea. The viewer certainly does.

Not only are all those whirring fan shots unnecessary, then, but they don’t make sense. See, the action takes place over at least several weeks, and more likely a few months, during which Toronto would be well into autumn, if not winter. Hardly fan weather! But hey, what are a few little errant literal details for a screenwriter so attached to those clever fan metaphors?

And what about Daniel’s cool warehouse pad when he moves away from Margo’s neighbourhood? It looks a million bucks! How the hell could a rickshaw wallah afford such a step-up?

As this over-long mess of a movie finally nears its end, Lou’s alcoholic sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) comes out with the one standout line of the script, addressed to Margo: “Life has gaps, it just does. But that doesn’t mean you have to fill them. You fucked up.”

Alas, it’s taken way too long to get to that lesson. I was lost to the cause of this movie – whatever that actually is – long before these words of wisdom.


Review 2: (Karen)
Rarely have I felt so ambivalent about a film as I do about Take This Waltz. I really wanted to like it. I didn’t think there’d be much chance: the storyline suggested the worst kind of chick lit. Margo (Michelle Williams) feels an immediate connection with a randomly encountered stranger, and then discovers he has moved in over the road. She feels bound to tell him that she’s married. They continue to encounter each other, and she knows she’s in trouble. She has a choice to make between the comfortable, till-now happy marriage with Lou (Seth Rogen), and the possibility of an exciting new relationship with Daniel (Luke Kirby). That’s the whole story (minus the ending, which I won’t reveal), and while it’s possible to make great art about the situation of a woman struggling with just such a choice, Take This Waltz falls way short of delivering the kind of characterisations and insights that could have lifted the material out of its trite groove.

It’s easy to say what’s good in the film, and in fact there’s quite a lot. Top of the list is the cinematography, which is superb. From the opening sequence, where the main character is brought into sharp focus, with single strands of hair, motes of dust and the peach fuzz on her arms backlit beautifully, to underwater scenes, and streets at night, director of photography Luc Montpellier delivers perfectly exposed, colour saturated, brilliantly framed images. Late in the film there’s a technically excellent montage that suggests (well, hits us over the head with, actually) the passing of time, which also showcases the talents of the editor (Christopher Donaldson) and set decorator (Steve Shewchuk). Production values are high throughout; it’s a gorgeous visual feast.

It’s a bit of an aural feast too, with a great choice of music – except the title track, Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz, a great song that comes out of nowhere and has no discernible relation to the story.

And Michelle Williams is infinitely watchable. She’s not Hollywood-beautiful (although she can be, as My Week With Marilyn proved), but she’s cute and adorable. Seth Rogen is great as her teddy-bear of a husband, Lou, and their marriage (comfortable, loving, with the usual irritations, struggles and issues) is portrayed well in a series of scenes revealing the intimacy of a long-term relationship.

Margot is an aspiring novelist, working as a freelance journalist, and Lou is a cookbook writer, endlessly testing chicken recipes; they have a large, happy extended family that includes Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), who for no good narrative reason is an alcoholic. Daniel, the sexy hunk o’ spunk who throws a spanner in the domestic works, is an artist who works the tourist strip as a rickshaw puller.

Unfortunately the script has some truly horrible shortcomings, and they start early. We find out that Margo has the gall to pull a scam with airlines so that she won’t miss connecting flights. She reveals this to Daniel, and they indulge in a bit of pop psych analysis. Not only is this one of the clunkiest metaphors I’ve encountered in a long time, it’s also not matched by anything else in Margo’s character, either in the fear or the chutzpah stakes.

Later, writer/director Sarah Polley commits a cardinal sin by violating the “show, don’t tell” convention, and has Margo explaining to Daniel how she is moved to melancholia by the way a shaft of sunlight falls. Oh really? We’ve spent ages with Margo already and haven’t seen any evidence of this hypersensitivity.

Cardinal sinner, Sarah Polley

There are other ridiculous or incredible scenes. One, where Daniel describes to Margot what he is doing to her body (in his imagination), just doesn’t work and is embarrassing to watch. Most women know that anyone who can run lines like these must a serial player – yet Daniel is presented otherwise as someone who respects Margo’s moral qualms and is prepared to be patient.

Another has Geraldine, who has spectacularly fallen off the wagon, telling Margo that her alcoholism is not as bad as Margo’s marriage woes. Yeah, right. The voice of reason speaks.

Sometimes the ridiculousness is in the middle of – and spoils – good bits. There’s a very funny sequence at an aquarobics class (the instructor is worth the price of admission alone), and a beautifully filmed and poignant scene in the showers afterwards, where the point is made: “everything new becomes old”. But here’s the rub: Daniel has followed Margo to the class, and sits in the stands watching the (mostly geriatric) participants. Would she really fall in love with this stalker?

And a nicely played scene where Lou and Margo go out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary shows them toying with their first course: a shrimp cocktail. Now people in films toying with their food drives me crackers all the time, but a food writer ordering a shrimp cocktail? Have retro-chic aliens invaded his brain?

The wedding anniversary dinner does a good job of demonstrating the ennui that distresses Margo – although it in no way forewarns of the crazy stuff that happens later, when it seemed like the projectionist had loaded up a reel from another film (maybe that’s not how it’s done these days, but you get my drift). A tender, often twee portrayal of a relationship suddenly turned… well, you’ll have to see it to find out.

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4 thoughts on “Take This Waltz Movie Review”

  1. Hey, rolanstein, isn’t it funny that we found so many different bits to criticise!
    But like you, I winced when Margo leaned against the oven (well, given your thoughts about Michelle Williams, maybe you didn’t exactly wince).
    I did like the underwater scene, though, and thought it was a great metaphor for the dance they were doing out in the real world.
    There might have been a good film in there somewhere, but it would have taken a good script editor to find it. Tell you what, though, I’d love to see Sarah Polley use the same production team and direct someone else’s script.

  2. Agree with all your criticisms, Karen, some of which I had noted, while others had escaped me. Actually, there were so many flaws in this thing that I had a hell of a job paring my review down to manageable length.

    Haha – had a chuckle at your parenthetical comment in relation to the hot oven door gaff. I don’t have a problem with Michelle Williams per se, by the way – just when she’s in this cutesy little girl mode. And I do think her virtual replication here of her character in Blue Valentine severely undermines the praise she frequently gets critically for her versatility. Then again, her superb Marilyn effort supports that praise…

    Look, I concede that the underwater film was beautifully shot and choreographed, and as you say it worked well metaphorically. Thing is, I found Polley’s craftspersonship so laid bare, it became annoying. She seems to broadcast her built-in levels of meaning with the self-satisfied air of an amateur with some talent who has no understanding of how far they have to go, thrilling herself with her figurative ‘cleverness’ and attention to detail while neglecting to scrutinize the broad strokes. As you say, where was the editor?

    Yeah, I’d like to see the same production team direct someone else’s script, but dunno whether I’d be terribly enthused about Polley being in the director’s chair. Going by this offering, there’s not much about her that excites me at the moment. She comes across as immature, both in her thinking and as a filmmaker…so, for me, the jury is well and truly out until more evidence is to hand.

    I’ve got a comment on the music, but pressed for time at the moment. I shall return!


  3. Yeah, the music. Well, I suppose it’s fair enough that almost all the songs that feature in this Canadian flick are by Canadian artists, but can’t help thinking that’s oh so very ‘culturally appropriate’. I wouldn’t normally pick on something like that, but this is yet another of many instances of Polley ticking all the hipster artiste boxes. Never have been too interested in dutiful and dedicated followers of fashion.

    The muffin-baking scene in the early part of the film features the song Secret Heart, which I love. But the version they choose is Feist’s, not the far superior and more poignant original by Ron Sexsmith. Both artists are Canadian, but Feist is young and cool and indie, and Sexsmith is middle-aged and has always been the antithesis of cool. No competition, then.

    The other reason I can imagine Polley might have chosen the Feist version is that the lyrics have been changed to reflect a female POV. This exemplifies the anal artistic over-crafting I referred to in my previous post. It’s not clever – it’s a step too far (like the mindfuck cafe dialogue, and Margo being shown pissing three times throughout the film).

    Then there’s the 3 scenes featuring Video Killed The Radio Star. The relevance to the film of the new-usurping-the-old theme of the song lyrics is, of course, obvious (too obvious…that compulsion to invest everything with clear meaning is amateurish in my book). But my real gripe is not with the song choice per se. Rather, it’s that it’s used on 3 occasions, mostly to broadcast meaning that has already been received loud and clear.

    First, on the rollercoaster with Daniel – joyous and exciting, but coming to an end when they depart the ride. Neat metaphor, good atmosphere, and OK.

    The second time, Margo is unaccountably back on the same ride (why?…talk about a forced metaphor!) with the same song thumping out, but this time she’s alone. Wistful, but content, she’s found herself, is now more fully expressed, and doesn’t need Daniel to feel so, although warm memories of their first ride are there. Just allowable.

    But Polley can’t leave it there. We’ve got to hear good ol’ Buggles a third time (is the song that good?), on this occasion during the second muffin-baking scene…except now it’s not thumping out cos the sound is tinny and coming from a small radio. A pale facsimile of the previous two versions, then. Why? Cos Margo is past the exhilaration of new love, the excitement has faded, she and Daniel are watching TV together just as she used to do with boring old Lou, etc. Do we really need Buggles on transistor to reinforce this?

    That’ll do for my raving on. Gotta draw a line somewhere.


  4. Great analysis re the Video Killed the Radio Star song overkill!
    I’m not familiar with the Sexsmith song you mention, Secret Heart, but I did recognise Feist’s voice, and looked for her name in the credits. She seemed to get an acting credit – maybe she was an extra in the party scene?
    Anyway, I was only generally aware of the good music in the film, particularly the first use of Video Killed, where the sound was echoey and atmospheric – gorgeous! – but now, having YouTubed Secret Heart, I realise how extra good the choices were. Yes, three-times-use is OTT, but songs like Secret Heart do speak to people in Margot’s situation, so it just reflects the expertise that went into the film on many levels.
    Just slightly off-topic, I saw Feist live earlier this year, and she is amazing.

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