In the opening minutes of Take This Waltz, generic “writer” Margot (Michelle Williams) announces to a total stranger that she feels uncomfortable in airports. “I don’t like being in between things,” she admits, giving voice to a specific plaint no one has ever thought except while laboring over a fussy screenplay. Even moreso than her filmmaking debut, the Alzheimer’s saga Away From Her, the second drama by actress-turned-director Sarah Polley is at war with itself. On one hand, Polley can’t always resist suffocating, overly-studied moments like the one above. On the other, is a natural gift for harsh insights into human relationships. The better side wins out, but it’s a tussle.
Like Away From Her, Waltz is a study of marriage. Margot is five years into a playful yet overly-comfortable merger with Lou, who radiates a Seth Rogen-esque man-child vibe—perhaps because he’s played by Seth Rogen. The two don’t communicate beyond jokes, and foreplay involves childish playing before pulling off their undies beneath the covers like scared teenagers. Enter neighbor Daniel (distracting Kevin McDonald doppelganger Luke Kirby). His smarm charms her, and wouldn’t you know the two spend the majority of Waltz “in between things.” Margot doesn’t want to cheat, but she can’t help but thrill to Daniel’s predatory directness, even if he speaks in 19th-century bodice-ripper cliches. (Margot: “I should leave.” Daniel: “Then why don’t you?”)
Waltz can be precious, with heavy scenes set to Feist soundalikes and strained humor: Daniel’s side job is pushing a rickshaw (!) while Margot and Lou engage in cartoonishly violent pillow talk—a joke pilfered outright from Punch-Drunk Love. But Polley has a knack for unexpected, sometimes left-field shading. Rogen, whose very Rogen-ness jazzes up the too-methodical filmmaking, all but begs to be cuckolded, but he’ll periodically throw a curveball, suggesting that he’s deeper than we’re ever allowed to know. As it goes on, Waltz both complicates its simple affair setup and segues into a downer rumination on relationships. “The new gets old,” proclaims Lou’s mordant, scene-stealing ex-alkie sister (Sarah Silverman). “The old gets old, too.” Polley lets this idea sit, stew and infect her movie with its realist pessimism. It takes some getting there, but Waltz winds up depressingly profound.