Sunday, August 5, 2012

Craving a River's Disguise: Take This Waltz

There they stand in the locker room showers. Naked, obviously. One of them, Margot (Michelle Williams), has just caused a water aerobics class to be cut short after a giggle fit made her pee in the pool. Another of them, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), is shaving her legs while making references to her diminishing sex life in a barely-veiled attempt to get her sister-in-law to realize that she's too old to be acting like a schoolgirl, going to pieces whenever a cute guy gives her some attention. "Sometimes I just want something new," a third woman says, as if reading Margot's mind. "New things get old," chimes in another woman from across the room, and she has the wrinkles and flab to prove it.

In a scene that's just a few minutes long, director Sarah Polley repeatedly contrasts the lean and perky younger bodies on one side of the shower with the overweight and sagging older bodies on the other, bluntly visualizing one of her film's core themes: nothing lasts forever. It is by far the most daring scene in Take This Waltz, and it's certainly the nudest, but it isn't the most revealing. Not by a long shot. Because far more explicit than Polley's cinematography is her screenplay, in which characters repeatedly engage in full-frontal displays of emotion that leave nothing to the imagination.

The soul bearing begins almost immediately. In the movie's second substantive scene, Margot finds herself seated on a plane next to a guy she briefly encountered on the street a day earlier. Luke Kirby's Daniel is an inquisitive type and so he begins peppering Margot with questions, most of them having to do with why she boarded the plane on a wheelchair a day after he saw her walking around. Margot tries to avoid the subject at first, but after Daniel calls bullshit on her flimsy cover story she breaks down and gives him the whole truth: she gets wheelchair assistance at airports because she has a fear of missing connections. You'd think the flight from Nova Scotia to Toronto would be direct, but that's not the point. Even if your Blatant Metaphor Detector isn't going off already, it might explode when Margot says: "I don't like being in between things."

For a movie that's about a woman torn between a wifely commitment to her chicken-cooking husband (Seth Rogen's Lou) and a newfound passion for this other white meat, Margot's admission drops like one of Hans Zimmer's now legendary BRRRRAAAWWWWMMMs from 2010's Inception, which is appropriate, actually, because Polley's characters are always double-underlining the inner workings of their emotions the same way that Christopher Nolan characters tend to emphatically articulate the mechanics of the plot. "I'm afraid of being afraid," Margot tells Daniel, continuing the same conversation, parting the legs to her psyche like the sentimental equivalent of Catharine Tramell. "That sounds like the most dangerous thing in the world," Daniel responds comfortingly, no doubt thinking exactly what Michael Douglas' Nick Curran thought in that Basic Instinct interrogation room 20 years ago: "I'm gonna hit that!"

Daniel, who happens to live across the street from Margot, pulls a rickshaw through their stylish Toronto neighborhood by day and paints by night (of course he does!), but his true talent is coupling creepy confidence with fashionable vulnerability. "Do you show your stuff?" Margot asks when she first visits Daniel's art-littered home. He doesn't. Why? "Because I'm a coward," he insists. Sure he is. The kind of coward who all but dares Margot to have an affair the first time he meets her. The kind of coward who, upon Margot's request, sits across from her at a restaurant and describes at length, and in explicit detail, all the things he'd like to do to her. The kind of coward who sits by himself in the bleachers of the public pool munching on chips while watching Margot's water aerobics class. That kind of coward, which is no coward at all.

In what might be the low point of Polley's scripted explicitness, Daniel, who has already painted an interpretive split-bodied portrait of Margot that they analyze together lest the symbolism escape us ("Maybe half isn't living up to her full potential ..."), makes this observation: "You seem restless. Not just now. Like, in a permanent way." To which Margot responds with a profound, seemingly ready-made babysitting story that somehow or another gets here: "Sometimes a shaft of sunlight falls across the pavement in a certain way and I want to cry."

Yeesh. Even Terrence Malick would be embarrassed by the homespun poetry of that line. And yet, Michelle Williams is so genuine, so heartfelt that some of this stuff almost works.

What a talent she is! Over a relatively short career, Williams has played glamorous and shabby women, bubbly and depressed women, attention-grabbing and overlooked women, but Margot presents an interesting challenge precisely because Polley's screenplay often tries to do Williams' work for her. In response, Williams takes Polley's hyper-aware, melodramatic verse and funnels it through an exterior so modest that we never confuse Margot for a movie star, even though she talks like one. I'm not sure it's worth seeing the movie to see the performance, but the performance makes the movie watchable.

The other performances are hit-and-miss. Rogen is the perfect pick to play the super sweet husband who feels like he married beyond his potential and hopes that his wife never notices, and yet certain scenes are beyond his grasp: during a montage in which Polley shows only Lou's side of an argument it's clear that the hand covering Lou's face isn't concealing tears but lack thereof. Meanwhile, Silverman does well with Geraldine's outbursts of edgy, confrontational banter (little surprise there), but she isn't the least bit convincing in her final appearance, when the story requires Silverman to go to a place even more vulnerable than the aforementioned shower scene.

Which reminds me: If it wasn't obvious, the shower scene is a perfect example of a time that Polley the director should have silenced Polley the writer, nixing the verbal commentary that the cinematography makes redundant. As it turns out, the best scenes in Polley's follow-up to 2002's Away From Her are set to The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz" — scenes in which no one is talking.

Some of that is mere coincidence, but this part isn't: Take This Waltz is never more compelling than when it ends, because for the first time we can't be entirely sure what Margot is feeling.


ghibli said...

Loved this film, loved the shower scene. As a woman who has spent a lifetime in gyms and the showers that go with them, I found this honesty refreshing and beautiful. Bodies change over time. Own it don't fear it.

jake said...

Man, I was wondering how this would turn out, since Michelle Williams is pretty much always great and her projects are always interesting. But this sounds terrible.

Mainly because it's so unpleasant when your characters are constantly reiterating the Themes of the movie through unrealisitc, cringe-inducing dialogue.

On top of that it kind of sounds miscast (Seth Rogen? Love him, but come on....).

Thanks as always for your insight. I'm definitely skipping this.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I thought the film was very interesting, even with its failures. I agree that the script is way too on the nose, and the Meet-Cute ... Ugh. I wanted to edit it all down. What I did like about it was its reluctance (maybe the wrong word) to "diagnose" Michelle Williams' character. She is not a manic Pixie, she is actually quite dismal, for reasons she cannot seem to say. In that way, she reminded me of the great female performances in the 1970s, when women were allowed to be more complex, more difficult, less pleasing. It was uncomfortable to watch, for sure, but I think there should be MORE discomfort in films. More real raw-ness. Loved the shower scene, hated the dialogue in the scene that told us how to interpret what we saw. But I loved Polley's point with the scene anyway. And I clocked Luke Kirby as awesome from the Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows where he plays an American movie star who goes to this Canadian theatre festival to play Hamlet to "get some legitimacy in the States". He has a romance with Rachel McAdams, who is also in the theatre company, and he is just fantastic. I know Polley's dedication to Canadian artists (Polley was also in Slings and Arrows), so I was thrilled to see him be given so much to do. He's sexy. The script needed some serious pruning. But, having said all that, I really liked the sense of a big ol' MESS beneath all that speechifying. I felt the mess. The ambivalence.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Sheila: Yeah, I appreciate that they don't specifically diagnose her. There's some good "mess" in that, it's true. But while I also appreciate that the end of the film is rather ambiguous -- just how happy is Margot, really -- it also creates a sense that the movie just doesn't care what's wrong with Margot ... and not in a 'it's too complicated to understand' way so much as a 'I ran out of time before I really got deep into the character study' kind of way. But admittedly it's a very fine line.

For the number of times I rolled my eyes at this movie, and there were many (I didn't even mention the "gaylord" conversation, which has to be some of the worst writing I've ever encountered; I felt terrible for the actors trying to do something with it), I did enjoy the general angle of approach -- a character who is very much in love with her very loveable husband and empty inside just the same. Yep, that's the "mess" that it gets right.

Also, while the whole relationship-in-rotation sequence seemed to go too far as it was unfolding, by the end of it I admired its daring: it seems to be saying that Margot gets everything she ever fantasized about AND MORE ... and it still doesn't quite fill her up. Alas, that's yet another reason that the movie is never more interesting than when it ends. I wish the movie had left more time to explore those themes.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ouch, yes, "gaylord". I also winced for the actors there. I think Polley as a writer needed some better advice, a real editor - someone who could chop that shit down. My main issue was with the script, most definitely.

and yeah, the rotating scene. After the buildup of that fantastic scene where Luke Kirby tells her what he wants to do to her (one of the sexiest scenes of the year, and nobody is touching anyone) ... to see her go into that situation and not only experience him, but all those other folks - haha - was a strange experience - and interesting, too, despite the problems with the script. That's what I mean about the complex dissatisfied anxious female stars of the 70s. That's what the film was sort of getting at. Because the typical story would be Luke Kirby is the hot guy who saves her from this boring relationship - and we've all seen that before. But here ... that's not what's going on. You got the feeling that she was running from something that was never specified, and Seth Rogen's character was going to be a casualty of her restlessness.

So all of that was THERE, but the script. Oy.

Sheila O'Malley said...

And I didn't think Seth Rogen was miscast at all. He was clearly a nice guy, playful, sweet, in a rut maybe - but not a bad guy. Rogen fits very well into that. I thought he was out of his depth as an actor in that one long section, about 30 minutes long, where the camera stays on his face only - as he reacts to the news that she's leaving him. I could see what Polley was going for - but I was picturing someone like Jeremy Renner or Ewan McGregor in that moment - it would have been absolutely heartwrenching. Rogen doesn't quite have the vulnerability (yet) to pull it off. So again, the movie kind of missed the mark there ... although I have to say I admired the attempt, for some reason.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Good lord, not 30 minutes long. 30 SECONDS long!!

Richard Bellamy said...

Excellent review, Jason. Glad to see your recent burst of new posts. I definitely plan to see this when it slowly gets down to the Cape this coming weekend. Nicely, your review doesn't give too much away but rather makes me want to see the movie even more.

Sam Juliano said...

Yep, the film is naratively problematic, and despite it's intents in the end overwrought. I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April, and was anticipating something special, knowing of Polley's exceptional direction of AWAY FROM HER. Still as you expertly delineate Michelle William is a force of nature, and she again delivers a performance of quiet power. Oddly enough, despite it's problems I did not see Seth Rogen's casting here as one of them. But I know he is not an actor to inspire much appreciation for the craft. The story arc here is contrived, and the film comes off as smug in it's intent. In the end it adds up to little, though again Williams does hold the stage impressively.