Films concerned with adultery, or the potential for it, teeter over the pitfall of unlikeableness. A character even asking the loaded question “Should I cheat?” risks the abandonment of audience sympathy, but writer-director Sarah Polley goes there with her sophomore feature Take This Waltz.
Polley’s fearlessness is one of many reasons I take no pleasure in saying that Take This Waltz stumbles. Better known as an actor, Polley made a brilliant directing debut with 2006’s Away from Her, so high expectations accompany her latest. And then there’s the cast Polley has enlisted, including three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a married couple.
The film begins with Williams’ Margot awkwardly meeting an attractive hipster named Daniel (Luke Kirby). Their chance encounter at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia marks the first in a series of unnecessarily overwritten signifiers: in this place of contention, the two banter over a historical reenactment of a “public humiliation,” the lashing of an adulterer. When they meet again on an airplane heading home to Toronto, she explains, “I’m afraid of connections,” then adds, by way of clarification, “In airports.” Right.
Margot has reason to be afraid, of course, because she’s heading home to her husband Lou (Rogen), a sweet but clueless man struggling to figure out what his obviously dissatisfied wife would like him to do, short of being someone else. Also the universe seems to hate him, for guess where Margot’s tempter Daniel lives? Across the street.
And so the slow dance continues, with neither Margot and Daniel nor Margot and Lou able to avoid bumping into each other. The first pair share stolen moments that typically come to abrupt ends, while the latter one curdles into passive-aggression, the couple’s defining playfulness becoming palpably strained. Plus pesky life goes on, meaning Margot and Lou also have to contend with the family problems of his sister Geraldine (nicely played by the great Sarah Silverman).
Polley knows well enough that nothing is permanent, stuff happens and, as the Bard wrote, “Affection is not rated from the heart.” But the maturity of these understandings does not, in and of itself, a movie make, and the devil of Take This Waltz is in its tonal missteps and unconvincing details. One must, for example, ignore the utter fantasy of the main characters’ living arrangements in well-appointed homes, given that Lou writes chicken cookbooks, Margot writes as well (“just not what I want to write”), and Daniel is a rickshaw driver and painter by hobby.
Margot’s maddening indecision, on the other hand, is probably entirely realistic, but the way she prolongs the process of making three people miserable quickly alienates the viewer (to Williams’ credit, she goes where the character takes her, without vanity or the slightest hesitation). There’s a movie about this subject that finds the humor in it and allows us to sympathize with the characters, but unfortunately these two hours of discomfort don’t quite add up to it.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]