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Catching Up on 2012: Take This Waltz

I went into Take This Waltz knowing full well that this wasn’t going to be the usual kind of Seth Rogen film.  Frankly, I was excited by that idea!  I have been a big fan of Seth Rogen since his work as a young kid on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.  And while I haven’t tired of his adolescent-profane schtick in movies (I am eagerly looking forward, for instance, to This is the End), I am always curious to see a comedic actor take on a more straight dramatic role.

In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams stars as a young woman named Margot.  Margot is a writer, and as the film opens, we see that she has taken a job writing promotional copy for a Sturbridge village type old-timey recreation town.  While wandering around the town, she meets Daniel, a curious and charming young artist.  Sparks fly between the two, and do so again when they see each other on the plane-ride home.  It turns out Daniel lives on Margot’s street, only a few yards down.  This would be the charming “meet-cute” of a lovely romantic comedy, except for one small problem: Margot is married, to a chef named Lou (Seth Rogen).

I really wanted to like Take This Waltz, and I know this film has been very well-reviewed.  But I must confess to having found it to be a total bore.  After an hour, I was totally emotionally disconnected from the film, and I had a very hard time getting through the second half, probably the hardest time I’ve had finishing any movie in recent memory.

At no point in the film was I able to make any connection, as a viewer, with Margot.  The problems for me started early, as right from the opening scenes I just didn’t get her.  She has all sorts of weird, quirky mannerisms, and she seems so on edge and prickly when we meet her, particularly when Daniel initiates a conversation with her.  I wasn’t at all sure what to make of her.  It wasn’t just that I found her mannerisms unlikable (though I did), it’s that I honestly didn’t understand what the heck was going on with this woman.  It wasn’t clear to me why she was at the park, why she acted so weird around Daniel, and whether she really needed a wheelchair.  You see, it turns out that Margot is uncomfortable traveling so she pretends to need a wheelchair on flights so that she can be cared for and shuttled around by the airline crew.  By the time we got that revelation, only 10-15 minutes into the film, I was starting to sort out who this character was, after the confusion of the opening minutes, and I didn’t at all like what I saw.  Pretending to be in a wheelchair??  I guess we’re supposed to find that whimsically quirky, but I didn’t at all.

We then spend most of the rest of the film following Margot as she dithers about her, conflicted about her sparks with Daniel and moping about, clearly dissatisfied with her life with her husband Lou.  Lou isn’t presented as a saint in the film, and there are certainly times when he acts carelessly towards her.  But for the most part he seems a decent enough fellow, affable and hard-working at his vocation (he is a writer of chicken recipe books).  I didn’t see Lou as acting at all in a manner that warranted Margot’s clear dissatisfaction with him and with their marriage, and he certainly to me did not seem to deserve her leaving him for Daniel which, spoiler alert, Margot does about two-thirds of the way through the movie.

Just as an example, Margot repeatedly complains about how all Lou cooks is chicken, every night.  One could certainly argue that a good chef who is also a caring husband would occasionally prepare a non-chicken dish to be nice to his wife.  I can see that.  But when the movie shows us that Lou is under pressure to finish his book of recipes, I can’t really blame him for slaving over chicken-recipes day in and day out until his book is done!  It seems petty and selfish, to me, for Margot to be so angry that all he cooks her is chicken.

I have thought a lot about my strong reaction to the film.  There are certainly plenty of movies that I have loved where the characters are unlikable.  Take The Godfather, for example, in which almost every character is not only despicable, but a murderer!  And I not only love all of those characters, I love that film.  I am not alone in considering it one of the greatest movies ever made.  Or perhaps a better comparison would be to a film like Taxi Driver.  Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle doesn’t have any of the charm or charisma of Don Corleone, or Sonny or Michael or any of the other lovable hoods in The Godfather.  No, Travis is an abhorrent creature, creepy and frightening and loathsome.  I don’t feel an iota of connection with Travis when I watch Taxi Driver, and yet I still find the film to be extraordinarily compelling.

So why do I feel such a disconnect with Take This Waltz?  Surely I could still enjoy the film even if I disliked the central character.  I like Taxi Driver, and plenty of other films with unlikable central characters.  Is it just because I am a boorish man?  When women watch Take This Waltz, do they see it differently than I do?  Are they more sympathetic to Margot than I was?  Or perhaps it’s not a man-woman thing at all, and just that there was something about this particular character that turned me off to the story.

Or maybe isn’t the issue of the likability or un-likablity  of Margot at all.  Maybe the issue is the over-all story of the film.  One issue is that I never quite understood the over-all point of the story, or the point-of-view of the film.  Are we supposed to be sympathetic with Margot?  I was never quite sure.  That felt like a problem to me, though also not the sole flaw in the film because, here again, there are definitely plenty of other films with ambiguous points-of-view that I have quite enjoyed.  (I recently re-watched Gone Baby Gone, a film that I love and is a great example of a movie that leaves room for multiple interpretations and opinions, without the film’s making a judgment of its own.)

There was one moment, late in the film, that I thought was a truly great moment and that, for a moment, cast the entire film in a whole new light.  After leaving Lou for Daniel, Margot is happy.  But then we see a glorious, dizzy montage.  As the camera spins around and around Margot and Lou, together in the center of their new apartment, we dissolve from moment to moment as time passes and we see the couple happy together doing all sorts of things, making love, and then settling into the regularity of their life together and, eventually ennui, as we see them grow distant from one another.  In just the span of a minute or two, we see the arc of an entire relationship unfold.  It’s a supremely clever idea for a sequence and it is brilliantly executed by Ms. Polley and her team.  Watching this unfold, I thought for sure it was the end of the film, and that here we were seeing some judgment on Margot.  As we see her grow as unhappy with Daniel as she was with Lou, that leads me to conclude that the root cause of her unhappiness wasn’t Lou at all, but something internal in herself.  I wish that had been the end of the movie.  It would have been a very clever way to end the picture, not only because it’s a super-cool shot but because, in ending on a note of criticism of Margot, I would have felt that I wasn’t a crazy person, sitting watching the film and detesting the main character.

But instead we get another twenty minutes or so of tedium and unhappiness, as Margot’s path again crosses with Lou, and we see that not only is Lou unhappy but something really bad has happened to his likable sister, played entertainingly by Sarah Silverman.  In an awkward speech, Ms. Silverman’s character blames Margot for what happened, which seems unfair and off-base to me, and a weird note to end on.  For all the things I disliked Margot for, and all the things I thought her character deserved criticism for, this wasn’t one of them!  It seemed to dilute the point of the great montage that I was describing above, and just left me on a weird, off-putting note of general unhappiness.  Yay, I’m glad I spend two hours with these characters, they’re all pretty much unhappy now.  The end.

I feel badly being so negative about this film.  Even though I totally failed to connect with this movie, I still have far more respect for a small-budget, heartfelt film like this than I do a soulless big-budget monstrosity (like so many of the films playing in our movie theatres right now — Die Hard 5, G.I. Joe 2, Olympus Has Fallen, take your pick…).  Clearly this is a film that writer/director Sarah Polley has poured her heart and soul into.  I absolutely allow that maybe this is a great film whose point I just totally missed.  But for for me, Take This Waltz was a total strike-out, a dull snooze.  Oh well.

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