Editor’s Notes: In preparation for his ‘Projection: Oscar’ series starting again this fall, Oscar Pundit Jason McKiernan will take the next couple of weeks to review the already released 2012 titles with the most Oscar buzz.
Forget this Oscar season. Take This Waltz was a high-profile title going all the way back to last year’s awards season. The film premiered at TIFF 2011, where most the reviews were positive, but most of the buzz centered on Sarah Silverman’s full-frontal nude scene rather than the film itself. That’s obviously not fair, so it’s probably a good thing that the crowded 2011 awards lineup forced Magnolia Pictures to push the release back until summer 2012. Now we’ve accepted Silverman’s nudity, processed it, and have moved on to discuss the film proper.
And the verdict…the film is an odd-but-intriguing mixed bag, giving off the appearance of structural immaturity before knocking us back with a final sucker punch. I spent the majority of the movie considering my own disappointment, but once it was over I couldn’t think about anything but the film itself.
…the film is an odd-but-intriguing mixed bag, giving off the appearance of structural immaturity before knocking us back with a final sucker punch.
If Take This Waltz occupies an odd space in the screenwriting universe, it occupies an equally odd space in the career trajectory of writer-director Sarah Polley. This is Polley’s second feature as a director, but it’s rougher and less assured than her 2007 debut, Away From Her. Step by step, that film was a staggering masterwork; by contrast, this one is at times clunky, a little repetitive, and seemingly obvious in its portrayal of an impossible emotional scenario – a young woman’s choice between her loving-but-bland husband and the exciting new guy who has moved in across the street. Polley is still relatively young herself, and her approach to the material strikes me as slightly confused in the same manner that her protagonist, Margot (Michelle Williams), approaches the situation. Most of the themes ring obvious, the structure is a bit out-of-balance, and a lot of the big moments don’t hit the way they’re intended. And yet Polley’s resolution, her final realization, is melancholy and cynical in such a mature way. Kind of breathtaking, it is, and yet it comes at the tail end of an otherwise problematic narrative.
Margot is an aspiring writer whose current job relegates her to chugging out text for the marketing pamphlets of various businesses or destinations. She’s married to Lou (Seth Rogen), also a writer, who is working on an all-chicken cookbook. He seems more interested in watching his cacciatore bubble than he is in romancing his wife. Their life is entirely ordinary and fairly redundant – Lou cooks, Margot yearns, and the giddy joy of young love and passionate romance seems to have evaporated.
Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), who represents the intrigue and excitement Margot has been missing. She meets him on a business trip, researching an American historic site for one of her illustrious pamphlets. The two of them share the kind of chemistry that can unsettle one who has a husband back home. “Back home,” as it turns out, doesn’t help matters since, in a sitcom-y complication, Daniel lives across the street. He’s a starving artist type who recently moved in, thus setting in motion the burgeoning conflict: the lingering temptation lives just 20 yards away, while boring, reliable hubby is working in the kitchen. Polley understands the charge of initial attraction and the playfulness of innocent flirtation as it threatens to shed the innocence. That sense is palpable as Margot finds herself drifting towards Daniel more and more – first for an innocent walk, then for a late night swim in which they encircle one another in the pool but never let themselves touch, and then a dangerous rendezvous at a café at which Margot as Daniel to “tell me what you’d do to me,” and he tells her in graphic detail.
Polley’s screenplay lives in those small moments with enormous emotional impact. In broader strokes, however, the themes seem obvious and the plot turns feel clunky.
Polley’s screenplay lives in those small moments with enormous emotional impact. In broader strokes, however, the themes seem obvious and the plot turns feel clunky. The sheer repetition of scenes in which Margot reaches out to Lou and he responds coldly is irksome; we understand this is a rote relationship and he’s not intimately attentive, therefore stressing the point undercuts the intended conflict of the story. Similarly, the romantic bonding scenes between Margot and Daniel, well realized individually, seem rushed when piled on top of one another. This off-kilter narrative balance plagues most of the film, in fact – until the conflict reaches its tipping point, at which time Polley dabbles in the ideas she was really interesting in exploring. The result indelibly sears our emotions. Here is a very clear example of the screenwriter’s struggle: knowing how crucial your ending is and realizing the biggest obstacle is simply finding a way to get there. In this case, “getting there” drags the writing down, and yet once Polley does get there, with a resolution that is more circular than we initially realize, the cynical maturity is stunning. If we were truly able to feel the push-and-pull between passion and true emotional warmth for the length of the film, we would be discussing an emotional masterpiece. As it stands, Take This Waltz consists of a messy first two acts that give way to a fascinating, near-brilliant third – but that’s still only a third of a film.
Oscar Thoughts: Performances are solid across the board, but Williams and Rogen shine particularly bright, if only because they are the only two characters given the opportunity to exercise a full range of emotions. Williams carries the film from beginning to end, showcasing an open quirkiness that we don’t always see from her. Rogen is shackled by the coldness of his character, but he is handed a brilliant scene, the context of which can’t be mentioned here, where he runs the gamut from anger to sadness to humor to shock and back through them all again, and it’s the best work he’s ever done. I’m sure they wanted to make an Oscar play for Sarah Silverman, but she really isn’t a significant enough side character to merit serious consideration.
Truly, I think the film is dead-in-the-water, Oscar-wise. It’s the kind of intimate indie that typically gets screenplay-only traction, but the issues I illuminated will likely resonate with a lot of the Academy’s writing branch, too. And the release date shift was wise in terms of last season, but not wise in terms of this season; an early summer counterprogramming slot buries the film well before Oscar season starts and probably blunts its ultimate chances.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 ~ OKAY. Oh, what Sarah Polley could’ve accomplished if her first two acts were as focused as her third. Take This Waltz is ultimately thoughtful and powerful, but wades through a lot of filler before it gets there.[/notification]