Take This Waltz is a tough film to take in. You wouldn’t guess it from the casual romantic tone and the star-heavy cast that features the likes of Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman, but the film is intriguingly (even frustratingly) morally ambiguous. We’re given the standard rom-com set-up of a semi-content married girl who meets a tall dark stranger who she finds wildly attractive and appealing. Yet, hometown TIFF favorite writer/director Sarah Polly never makes it clear whether her protagonist should be sticking with her comfortable marriage or embarking on a new adventure. It’s nice to see a movie like this that makes you draw your own conclusions, but there’s a pretty big catch. You see, because it’s difficult to tell if the main character makes the right decision, it’s also difficult to tell if she’s even a character even worth liking. Ambiguity is nice, but walking out of a theater feeling like you despise a character who you just spent two hours with isn’t particularly satisfying. Hit the jump for more.
Michelle Williams stars Margot, one of those wandering 20s types who spends her time writing travel brochures and sampling her husband Lou’s (Seth Rogen) endless supply of recopies that he’s compiling for an all-chicken cookbook. She’s content, if bored with married life, existing through domestic routines and spending time with Lou’s foul-mouth sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman). Then one day she notices a handsome artist named Aaron (Aaron Abrams) who lives across the street and runs a rickshaw for cash. She becomes obsessed with Aaron and he starts to seduce her, first through harmless flirting and eventually through graphic sex talk in the film’s only truly cringe-worthy scene. It all gets so tough for Margot. How is she ever going to be happy in a pleasant family life when there’s some hot dude who talks about filling her with cum living across the street? Etc.
Margot’s dilemma is compelling for a very brief amount of time, but soon she starts to seem like a whiner who doesn’t appreciate what she has. There’s an extent to which that’s supposed to be the case, but Polly tells her story in such a detached and objective manner that it’s difficult to really know whether she loves or condemns Margot. I suppose that’s the point, but from my perspective it was hard to care about such a confused character. That’s a pretty big flaw at the center of the movie; however, it’s difficult to dismiss Take This Waltz outright because it does have a great deal going for it (including nude scenes for both Williams and Silverman for all you Mr. Skin pervs out there).
Polly already proved to be quite a strong humanist filmmaker with her debut Away From Her and that carries over here. You can tell that Polly at least cares for Margot even if most rational audiences won’t and her work with the cast is impressive. Michelle Williams is utterly incandescent in the movie and any remote affection I felt for her character early on came directly from Williams’ natural onscreen presence. But perhaps even more impressive are the performances Polly gets out of Rogen and Silverman. Both of the comic actors clearly improv a few laughs into their characters, but mostly play it straight. Silverman’s struggling alcoholic is painfully believable, while Rogen goes to some impressively deep emotional places as the distraught husband (he even gets a jump cut emotional meltdown a la Stardust Memories).
Unfortunately movies cannot be judged on their performances alone. Despite everything there is to like about Take This Waltz, the difficult presentation of the central character is just a little too much. The film is about a bad decision and a harsh lesson learned, but it’s still tough to really like Margot and that’s a problem. There are plenty of movies out there with horrible protagonists like Raging Bull, however the difference there is that we’re never actually supposed to consider Jake La Motta a good person. Margot is clearly supposed to be a wonderful woman who makes one dumb mistake and personally, I found that hard to swallow. I’m sure this will be a movie that split audiences based entirely on how you react to Margot’s plight. If you love the movie and consider her to be a flawed, lovable heroine, then great. Chances that just means we’ll never be friends though. That might be a good thing.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here.