Film Review: "TAKE THIS WALTZ"
Published: Friday, July 6, 2012
Updated: Friday, July 6, 2012 14:07
Sarah Polley’s second film, “TAKE THIS WALTZ”, is audacious, ambitious, and as personal as they come – I should adore it. But it has all the precision of a scattered shotgun blast. Michelle Williams stars as an introverted writer torn between her achingly dull husband (Seth Rogen) and her attractive, flirtatious neighbor (who somehow affords his single-occupant loft through nothing more than riding a rickshaw around here and there.) Williams tortures herself looking within for the decision; weighing Rogen’s soul against her own sexual gratification.
On one level, it’s a women’s picture done with respectability, even scarcer now than in the Technicolor days that I imagine Polley drew influence from. But the female focus is undone because Williams, playing the ultimate cipher (I refuse to seriously use the term “manic pixie dream girl”, but it would apply here,) is saddled with a character that’s all tics and no heart. Polley’s clearly drawing from personal experience, but she leaves William’s character a collection of quirks and insecurities, only hinting at the person beneath them. Perhaps it’s because Polley (who divorced and quickly remarried a few years ago) sees her as such a kindred spirit that she defies explanation. Still, if it works for her, it surely doesn’t for us. There are moments when this feels less like cinema and more like therapy.
But if you ignore the personal details and look at it on the surface (which may be the way I lean considering the aforementioned characterization,) then this is basically every cheap Hollywood romance ever made. We have a talented-but-troubled, adorable woman saddled with an unappealing (but goofily lovable) beau, and she struggles to decide between what’s comfortable and familiar and what’s sexy and mysterious. Granted, Polly doesn’t take the easiest way out (one of the men cheat,) but it doesn’t change the fact that this has the same narrative structure as “THE UGLY TRUTH”. It makes you think about just how far good lighting, some risky dialogue, and an ambiguous ending can go in covering up a been-there-done-that narrative. Because for every great moment here, there’s another that feels very, very ordinary.
But those moments of brilliance are blinding, inspiring, and even transcendent! The films centerpiece, a sound-and-fury laden carnival ride set to “Video Killed the Radio Star”, feels like nothing less than an encapsulation of life itself – light and darkness, joy and fear, passion and loneliness, excitement and disappointment, and all over too soon. But the sequence would work just as well as a short film out of context; Polley willfully mixes aesthetics and appearences within a moments notice. One moment you’re in a 50s melodrama of blinding red dresses and glowing greeneries, the next you’re in a drab interior watching some quiet realist dialogue, the next you’re in a hallucinogenic montage. It doesn’t come together as well as you might hope; it feels less like calculated mania and more like Polley making things up on the fly.
But the greater sequences are always quickly trailed by moments so out-of-tone, so amateur in their construction, that you can’t help but wonder if Polley was trying (and, if so, epically failing) at giving her film broad appeal. There are scenes of expressive angst and visual lusciousness that recall Sirk, sure. But then there are moments like when Sarah Silverman, after berating a police officer while getting arrested, is allowed to delay her booking a few minutes so she can give her best friend a Big Important Speech. And don’t even get me started on Polley’s sub-film-school metaphors: Williams won’t fly because her introvert is “terrified of making airport connections,” and Rogen makes good chicken – but the same kind for every meal of every day. A high school teacher would deride this as too on-the-nose.
These scenes feel like outtakes from a much worse movie; like the kind of device a first time storyteller (Polley’s only other feature length script, “AWAY FROM HER”, was an adaptation,) feels the need to include so that everything feels more ‘natural’. Even Rogen, who does an admirable job repressing his stoner-comedy urges in the role of a clean-cut boring everyman (it feels more like stunt casting than an inspired choice, FYI,) occasionally lapses out of the film and delivers lines with Apatow-laced vulgarity. Her constantly shifting visual aesthetic would go down much easier if she could keep a handle on her actors, or on just how “real” this world is suppose to be, or on anything at all.