Take This Waltz
Starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman and Luke Kirby
The question at the core of Take This Waltz, the new film written and directed by Sarah Polley, is about whether to have an affair with a rickshaw driver. It's not set in ancient China, but in modern-day Toronto, and the driver in question is a sexy and patient artist named Daniel played by Luke Kirby (familiar to fans of the Canadian show "Slings and Arrows") who happens to haul people around on his hipster rickshaw just to pay the rent. And the person agonizing over the decision is Margot (played by Michelle Williams), a writer who's married to a cookbook author named Lou (played by Seth Rogen). Maybe the bigger question is just how much adults need to sacrifice their desire for newness, and how to know when we've let our acceptance of the mundane domestic — and the potentially loveless — crush our souls.
The film opens with Margot making muffins. The camera follows her closely, catching her robin's-egg-blue toenails, her legs arched before the stove, the hint of sweat on her neck. Then there's a man in a soft-focus blur. Then we shift to a scene of Margot watching a staged re-enactment of the lashing of an adulterer (symbolism alert) — she's even called upon to deliver a few lashes herself — at a Canadian historical park. It's there that she meets Daniel.
We learn quickly that Margot is sensitive, unstable, possibly a pathological liar. In one of several coincidences, the two share a return flight home and Daniel sees Margot pretending to be handicapped in order to get pushed in a wheelchair around the airport. She claims to have problems with her legs. He says she's full of it. Then she says she's scared of layovers and terminals. "I don't like being in between things," she says. Back in Toronto they split a cab ride to the city, and it turns out they live in the same neighborhood. They're flirting, but keeping a little bit of space — a buffer that's both safe and kind of sexy — between themselves. When Margot tells Daniel she's married, he says that's too bad. And we think she might be lying. Turns out Daniel's recently moved in diagonally up the street.
Somehow Lou and Margot — who both seem to work from home most days — managed to miss the guy with the rickshaw across the street. Maybe Canadians just aren't nosy neighbors.
Sarah Silverman does a good job playing Lou's sister, a recovering alcoholic. Silverman and Rogen can't entirely remove their snide foul-mouthed comic personas from the characters they play here.
It may be good casting or luck or expert direction, but Williams as Margot conveys depths of buried emotion and ossified feeling, while Rogen's Lou isn't necessarily a jokester funny man, but he can't be serious. The two engage in weird and vaguely creepy baby talk in failed attempts to seduce each other. Something's not right. She tries to make advances and he doesn't quite respond right. He's either too busy testing the chicken recipes for his cookbook, or he lapses into the couple's default gross-out baby talk. Their five-year-old marriage is stale. Same old same old. Chicken every night. When they go out for an anniversary dinner, Lou petulantly resists Margot's attempts to artificially spur discussion.
"I'm not going to say something just for the sake of having a conversation," says Lou. If it's not baby talk these grown-ups are at a loss.
But one of the strengths of this film, which teeters toward twee at times, is that it's not all Lou's fault. Margot acts like a child. She pees in a pool because her friends make her laugh too much in an exercise class. This is the sad dramatic flipside to the adolescent man-boys of recent bromances. Here we have a couple, thirty-somethings with an enviably lovely house, cool jobs, nice families. Their big hang-up is getting in touch with their real desires. These are very first-world problems.
So Margot's run-ins with Daniel — he gets up early with his rickshaw — seem confused. Is she leading him on? Is he stalking her? A psychological split-portrait he's drawn of her seems insightful. "One side is full of hope," says Daniel, trying to explain the violation of looking too deeply into this person he hardly knows.
What are we to make of that rickshaw? Is Daniel a hero of selflessness and even self-abasement? Do we ultimately want and need someone to carry our weight or is it toxic to hope for that? The film may be in danger of metaphor abuse.
Polley won awards with her directorial debut, 2007's Away From Her. Her new movie is heavy, and the direction keeps all the parts spinning without straining the construction. Scenes have their own visual poetry, with bright colors and clarity dancing with blurs and saturation.
There are moments when the dialogue sounds like something from a good short story, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it comes off as natural on the screen.
"Life has a gap in it, it just does," says Silverman's character in a pivotal interaction. "You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic." Or maybe you do. That's the default position of Take This Waltz.
In the end, there's enough fruitful ambiguity in Take This Waltz to leave viewers puzzling slightly over what's happened and how, who's given in and who's given up, and what's the payoff or punishment for being an adult.