Tuesday 14 August 2012

Once around the block: "Take This Waltz"

Hmm. Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley's eagerly awaited follow-up to her directorial debut Away From Her, has about it something of the air of a mix-and-match suggestion from the Whose Line Is It Anyway? audience: Madame Bovary done in the style of indie romance. It's the kind of film where the girls wear red and the boys wear blue (or shades thereof); where a husband can say to his wife "I want to rape you with scissors and let you bleed to death", and - as in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, a high watermark for these things - it can be meant (and received) as a term of endearment. It's also sensitive to the point of defensiveness: as with those films made by men about men considering or tempted into adultery, it often feels as though someone on the production side of the equation is using these two hours to justify something to somebody, or to themselves - but also that the individual involved is so caught up in the situation that they haven't found a way to sell it to anybody else.

The husband and wife in question are Margot and Lou (Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen), to all intents and purposes a happily married couple. He's a talented chef, she's a published travel writer, and together they've made a home for themselves in one of those bijou-boho properties aspirant young professionals always inhabit in films like these. Except cracks are starting to appear in this once-unified veneer. He repeatedly refuses her calls to fix a leaky shower head, and on one of her assignments, she runs into a handsome stranger (Luke Kirby), an artist who just so happens to live directly across the street from the couple, in another one of those bijou-boho properties that always turn up in films like these.

Both geographically and emotionally, there isn't all that much to choose between these two suitors, save that one looks like Luke Kirby and the other like Seth Rogen (albeit the newly slimline Seth Rogen). This is the first hint of Take This Waltz's major limitation, which is the rare one that all these characters are rather too nice to grab the eye or ear: those joky threats of rape are really just a screenwriter's way of disavowing how personable they really are. This impacts upon the performers, who at crucial moments find themselves with nothing meaty to play with. Lou may be pilloried for his insistence on serving chicken dinners, but Take This Waltz may turn out to be the most vegan film of the year, subsisting on the dramatic equivalent of lentils and beets.

After the (unjust) failure of last year's The Green Hornet, Rogen may now be faced with the Steve Carell quandary: whether to allow himself to be cast as ordinary, or to hold out for scripts that actually allow him to be funny. We're encouraged to think Margot might be better off with the other man when Lou declares he'd rather the couple eat their anniversary dinner in silence - but we don't quite buy it, not least as this is a silence the Rogen of The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad simply wouldn't tolerate. (A middlebrow Seth Rogen is good for nothing very much at all.) Unexpectedly, Williams also comes to suffer from this crispbread characterisation, asked merely to look perky or pixieish as required - a task this actress could do (and probably does do) in her sleep - or to give into goofiness, the making of silly faces, which frankly isn't her strongest suit. In one scene, the pair contrive to be out-acted by a revolving electrical fan, whose movements are entirely natural, and true.

Polley is an unusual North American director, in that she's entirely comfortable around bodies: she shows her characters dancing, showering, shaving, urinating; it's the film that reveals a cute birthmark on the Williams left shoulder, and what Sarah Silverman might look like when she goes into the ladies' changing rooms. She knows you have to work hard to make intimacy convincing, off-screen as well as on. Yet what she can't do, in this instance, is make it especially compelling: even at the height of their passion, Margot and the artist only ever have the chemistry of a couple of plaid-wearing hipsters discussing the new Decemberists album in a not-for-profit bookstore.

The movie around them keeps lapsing into cuteness and mannerisms. Even a mainstream romantic comedy might think twice before having its heroine blurt out, in the opening ten minutes, "I'm terrified of making connections", no matter that Margot is talking about airport procedure; the subtext, in this instance, could scarcely be less sub. At 116 minutes, there are simply too many of these missteps for Take This Waltz to beguile in the way it desperately wants to: I was also amused by the late aspirational montage - looks like a fantasy, turns out to be reality - which combines a dizzying array of sexual permutations with the very latest in home furnishings.

There's something laudable in the way Polley's film backs away from romantic melodrama to show us regular guys and gals, just muddling through. Evidence of directorial intelligence emerges in the sequence that gives the film its title, where - riding the fairground waltzers with her new beau, to the strains of "Video Killed the Radio Star" - Margot is struck by what might happen when the loud music and flashing lights of this possibly fleeting attraction suddenly stop. Generally, though, this muddling proves a double-edged sword in a film that needed less sensitivity and more urgency about it. There never seems all that much at stake in this love triangle: even if Margot absconds, she's only ever going to end up two doors down from where she started. The only thing she might miss is a hot chicken dinner.

Take This Waltz opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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