Take This Waltz is essentially the story of a woman who’s always looking for something new to fill the perpetual void in her life. This means that, no matter how the movie ends, it will be tragic – or, to be as fair as possible, interpreted by many as tragic. It probably is, although my reading of it is somewhat different. It’s more a tragedy of character than of circumstance; here’s a woman who truly does believe that something is missing, despite the fact that she has been married for five years to the same man. One could make the argument that, personality wise, they have too little common ground to stand on. On the same token, one could also make the argument that, despite being somewhat dull and incommunicative, he’s still an all-around decent guy who did nothing to drive her away. This is really more about her than it is about him.
Her name is Margot (Michelle Williams), a young freelance writer who lives in a suburb of Toronto with her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), who’s writing a cookbook devoted entirely to chicken recipes and spends much of his time sautéing drumsticks in the kitchen. While on vacation, she met an artist named Daniel (Luke Kirby) and instantly made a connection with him on the plane ride back. Upon their return, Margot is both pleased and horrified to learn that he lives directly across the street from her. She also learns that he doesn’t share his art with the world and instead makes a living as a rickshaw driver. I admittedly know little about the money one can earn from pulling rickshaws, in the U.S. or in Canada, although it seems to me that that alone would be an inadequate source of income, especially when you’re renting an entire house.
Over the next several weeks, Margot and Daniel engage in an emotional affair, one that always teeters on the brink of becoming physical. Meanwhile, we see Margot trying and sometimes succeeding at engaging Lou. Granted, their level of engagement is basically on par with a couple who has just begun dating; they play around, roughhouse, and tease each other in very teenage ways, like describing the ways in which their love for one another amounts to over the top acts of physical harm. (Lou: “I love you so much, I want to put your spleen through a meat grinder.” Margot: “I love you so much, I want to inject your face with a curious combination of swine flu and Ebola.”) When dining out on their anniversary, however, Lou finds that he cannot keep a conversation going because he has nothing to say. This doesn’t bother him, seeing as he and Margot are married and already know everything about each other.
Part of the problem with this film is that writer/director Sarah Polley never quite has a fix on the Margot character, and therefore can’t inspire us to invest in her at anything beyond an arm’s length. We see that that she’s torn between two men, that she thinks she knows what she wants, and that when she finally gets what she wants, she’s doomed to once again feel restless and unfulfilled. What isn’t really explored is the reasoning behind this mindset. The best we get is an incredibly vague and rather pretentious airplane speech about her fear of being afraid, about not wanting to be stuck between two destination points. The Daniel character, seemingly the perfect man, listens to her every word and will eventually make love to her verbally in a café. By that, I mean he will get her teary-eyed and giggly by delivering a speech that sounds like a cross between a passage from a romance novel and a scene from a porn movie.
While lacking at a narrative level, the film is superbly cast. Williams, that most understated of actresses, is at her usual best. Rogen is a very pleasant surprise in what is surely the most mature role of his career, surpassing Funny People in terms of dramatic poise. But the real standout is Sarah Silverman, who is woefully underutilized as Margot’s alcoholic sister-in-law, Geraldine. Much has been made of the fact that one scene features her completely nude, and indeed, she does go commando in a gym shower along with a group of women with very real body types. Surely this must have been daring, but her dramatic range was what really impressed me; despite the fact that her character is always a heartbeat away from a relapse, she manages to find just the right balance between humor and seriousness.
Polley’s handling of the material isn’t quite successful, which is disappointing given how interesting certain aspects of the premise are. Infidelity, for example, is examined from a more feminine perspective, which is to say that it’s seen less as a simplistic physical transgression and more as a complex emotional betrayal. This is innately more engaging because it requires the audience to really think about the situation, the characters, and the outcome. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t at some point be an explanation of sorts, a reason for it having to be this way. The issue with Take This Waltz is that, so far as I can tell, no such explanation is given. We’re left to wonder why it is a woman can feel so empty even if she has everything she could possibly want. This is dangerous territory. The more we wonder, the less inclined we are to sympathize.