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Take This Waltz

Let’s talk for a moment about Sarah Polley. For those who haven’t heard of her, she’s been an actress since the age of six. She was the young protagonist Sally Salt in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, she was Adrien Brody’s wife in Splice, and those are probably her best-known roles in the States. She’s much better-known in her native Canada, where she’s racked up an impressive number of film and TV credits. Polley also has a respectable number of writing and directing credits under her belt, in addition to a “Best Adapted Screenplay” nomination for Away From Her, which she also helmed.

Now, imagine that Polley — an Oscar-nominated screenwriter with a lifetime of experience in acting, writing, and directing — made a movie starring Academy darling and world-class actor Michelle Williams. Now imagine that the movie was a critical success, with a current Tomatometer of 78 percent.

With so much talent and hype behind it, you’d think that Take This Waltz would be an awesome movie. But it isn’t. At all.

Let’s take it from the top. We open with Margot (Michelle Williams), who’s touring some kind of historical re-enactment park. There, she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), though their meeting is very brief. Later on, we see Margot at the airport, but she’s now in a wheelchair. She boards the plane, and who should be seated next to her but Daniel? They get to talking, and… Wait. Just wait a minute.

What exactly were either of them doing at that re-enactment park? Where are they going now that they’re on a plane? Why was Margot in a wheelchair, especially since the wheelchair is never seen or mentioned again at any point in the movie? Why is it that I’ve spent ten minutes of screen time with these characters and I don’t know them any better than I did going in?

Luckily, Margot helps with that last point. She tells Daniel that she’s afraid of “connections,” specifically with regard to airplane rides. She’s afraid of missing a connecting flight and being stranded in some strange airport. In other words, she’s afraid of being caught in a state of transition, between one thing and another. No joke, she says all of this in pretty much those exact words. The characterization in this movie really is that blunt.

Anyway, Margot and Daniel arrive at their destination, only to find that they’ve been neighbors this whole time without ever knowing it. So these two had been living across the street from each other this whole time, they just happened to be at the same historical re-enactment site who knows where for who knows what reason at the exact same time, they just happened to take the same plane ride home… and they’ve never met before? That’s a lotta disbelief to suspend, movie.

Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point. I know, because it’s the exact same thing I kept wondering through the first fifteen minutes of this film: “What’s the plot? Where’s the crisis? What’s the conflict?” Well, I’ll tell you: Margot is married. That’s the conflict. Margot has to choose between staying with her husband and having an affair. Leaving aside that this premise is old enough to be found in cave paintings, let’s break down why it’s so terribly executed here.

First and foremost is Seth Rogen, here playing Margot’s husband. Against all expectations, Rogen actually turns in a very sweet performance here. I didn’t think Rogen could act without being annoying, but here we are. Unfortunately, while all of this is great for Rogen, it paradoxically cripples the movie.

See, Lou and Margot clearly have a great relationship. They love each other, they make each other laugh, they’re a wonderful married couple. Granted, Lou tends to cook chicken for every meal (he’s experimenting with chicken recipes for a cookbook he’s writing), but at least he’s an interesting guy and a good cook to boot. Moreover, considering that Margot is only said to be an aspiring writer, and since we never see her at any kind of work, I assume that it’s Lou providing all of the income for the both of them.

Now let’s look at David. He’s your typical starving artist, whose only source of income is the rickshaw he pulls during the day. The only other thing we really know about him is that he’s a homewrecker. David and Margot have barely spent any time together, he’s quite aware that she’s married, and yet he’s eager to lure her into an affair. Aside from that, he’s your basic pretty-boy who’s young, dangerous, brimming over with sexual energy, andfr;rfrregherererueghrskgsrrrrrrrrrrrehghfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

…Sorry about that, I just fell asleep on my keyboard for a moment.

It should be obvious by now why this movie fails so hard. Margot has a perfectly good marriage with Lou, yet she’s willing to risk jeopardizing that with an affair. Hell, she doesn’t even actually have an affair until the third act starts! Up until that point, she spends the entire film weighing her desire for a stable marriage against her lust for Daniel, which is every bit as boring and painful as it sounds.

To be clear, I get what the filmmakers were going for here. I really do. Clearly, the film was meant to express the notion that even when something is beneficial for everyone involved, it can still get very boring after a lifetime of the same thing over and over. So Margot tries to shake things up with a guy who’s young, energetic, handsome, and above everything else, new.

The problem is that the movie expresses this theme in a way that’s alternately ham-fisted and incredibly boring. It’s expressed through characters who are prone to long-winded speeches, irrational behaviors, and “funny” personality quirks, and yet we’re expected to care about these “real” human beings with their “real” problems. So many characters in this movie are poorly constructed and completely unsympathetic, and there’s no greater kiss of death in an intimate character drama like this one.

To sum up, when the only decent main character in this film is the one played by Seth Rogen… apologies, but I can’t finish that sentence. I have a hard enough time believing I just typed that.

On the other hand, I should point out that Michelle Williams turns in very good work with what little she has. After all, she is Michelle Williams. Even when she’s in absolute dreck (*coughMeek’sCutoffcough*), Williams is still a phenomenal actress who puts every ounce of her talent and effort into everything she does.

Kudos are also due to Sarah Silverman, who appears as Lou’s sister (making her nude debut in the process, I might add). Silverman is there to provide comic relief, yet her character is also a recovering alcoholic. This character walks a fine line between humor and drama, and she’s self-aware in a way that our three main characters aren’t. Geraldine is a very complex character and Silverman plays her alarmingly well. Too bad Silverman doesn’t get enough screen time to adequately help salvage this picture.

Last but not least, it’s worth remembering that Williams, Silverman, and yes, Rogen all have some measure of talent. The actors were all given a godawful screenplay to work with, but at least these three still had the ability and the screen presence to wring a few interesting scenes out of it. The same cannot be said for Luke Kirby. Daniel is a bland character and Kirby only makes him blander.

With all of that said, it bears repeating that this film was not beyond saving. There are a lot of very creative shots in this film, and some potentially entertaining scenes as well. The night-time carnival ride set to “Video Killed the Radio Star” comes to mind. The underwater love scene was very nicely done. There’s also a shot that shows the progression of day into night, and it’s done in a very novel way. Alas, without a strong story at the movie’s core, these potentially interesting scenes become nothing more than disjointed segments of a meandering plot.

I have a very difficult time believing that Take This Waltz was written by an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I have an even harder time believing that this got a coveted spot on Hollywood’s Black List back in 2009. Everything bad about this movie comes back to its terrible character development, its horribly-executed premise, its painfully slow pacing, and a plot that varies from “directionless” to “non-existent.” Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman are all clearly trying so hard to make something work, but not even their combined talents could save this.

It was a painfully boring waste of time, and I hated every minute. Avoid at all costs, and go watch Your Sister’s Sister instead.

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