Movie review: 'Take This Waltz' deftly steps through marriage losing steam

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Margot and Lou have been happily married for five years, yet there are some issues. There are always marital issues. But they're not always rendered as skillfully and provocatively as in Canadian director Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz."

She sets the stage with an opening party -- and post-party-partum discussion -- in her characters' idyllic Toronto home.

"Say something," says Margot (Michelle Williams) after they've cleaned up.

"Why?" asks Lou (Seth Rogen).

'Take This Waltz'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan, Sarah Silverman.
  • Rating: R for for strong language, sexual content and graphic nudity.

"So we can have a conversation -- why don't you ask me how I'm doing?"

"I know how you're doing," he answers with a fond smile. "We live together. We know everything already."

Among the Mysteries of Margot is the fact that she's phobophobic -- afraid of being afraid -- and subject to bouts of inexplicable melancholy. Warm, fuzzy Lou, on the other hand, is a successful and wholly satisfied cookbook writer, who can't understand her restlessness, let alone her neediness.

Which is more sexual than emotional. Like many husbands, Lou has lost his lusty ways. She hasn't lost hers, but he shakes her off when she distracts him from his cacciatore and tries to lure him into the bedroom. She finally explodes.

"What the [F-bomb] are you talking about?" he wonders. "I'm just making chicken."

"You're always making chicken," she replies.

Margot is ripe for her encounter with new neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby), who is that rare combination of artist -- and rickshaw driver. He's a lone ranger with no faithful companions in Toronto. They have an instant, intense chemistry, henceforth stealing moments in and out of the swimming pool during a steamy summer.

Sooner or later, she's going to have to make a choice.

The story line is not terribly unique. What's unique is the captivating performance of cherubic-face Ms. Williams, one of the best and smartest actresses of our day, thrice Oscar-nominated for "My Week With Marilyn" (2011), "Blue Valentine" (2010) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005). In my opinion, she should have had two more for the beautiful "Meek's Cutoff" (2010) and "The Station Agent" (2003).

Oscars should be considered, here, for Leonard Cohen's soulful title song, whose lyrics consist of Mr. Cohen's own superb translation of the Federico Garcia Lorca poem "Little Viennese Waltz" (see box, Page W-19) -- and for director-writer Ms. Polley herself. This is a worthy follow-up to her brilliant first feature, "Away From Her," a wrenching Alzheimer's story starring Julie Christie.

Ms. Polley takes on the tough subjects, for sure, imbuing her work with intelligence and choreographic cinematography. Margot and Dan's romantic Tilt-a-Whirl ride, for example, is stunning -- with a stunningly unromantic end. There's a terrific women's shower scene -- hilariouly natural, with a lot of less-than-beautiful bodies on casual display. And Ms. Polley's final circular loft shot provides a gem of an ambiguous conclusion to the film.

"Everything new gets old," Ms. Polley suggests. Margot and Daniel have a mutually frustrating look-but-don't-touch relationship until he asks her what she really wants, and she replies, "I want some hope. I want to know what you'd do to me." That $64,000 question gets a $128,000 double-down answer in the form of his incredibly erotic monologue of exactly what he'd do, step by sexy step. It leaves her, him and us breathless -- and would pin-curl Aunt Thelma's hair.

Sarah Silverman has an over-the-top turn as Margot's BFF Geraldine ("Life has a gap in it -- you don't go crazy trying to fill it."). But the best surprise comes from Mr. Rogen, who proves again that he can turn in a solid dramatic performance when he needs to.

"Take This Waltz" doesn't ultimately achieve the emotional resonance it aims for, but its thorny adult themes -- if treated honestly -- rarely do. The narrative of a marriage running out of magic becomes, to some extent, a muddle about lust and infidelity and what Ms. Polley calls "the happiness imperative."

Her film is not prescriptive. It's an unsentimental autopsy of the good, bad and ugly things that long-term relationships do to love.

Opens Friday at the Reqent Square Theater.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: First Published August 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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