Sarah Polley’s passion-drunk film about a summertime flirtation is a lovesick daze of lust and pain and regret.
Love and hate was in the air, like pollen from a flower.
-- Hüsker Dü, “Celebrated Summer”
Somewhere inside the full-tilt lovesick blur that is Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is the kernel of a wildly uninteresting story. Woman in cozy relationship sans fireworks becomes attracted to new fella, with whom she has fireworks galore, but a dubious future. What to do: stay with husband or fly off with fling? Play the good wife or bad mistress? There’s a spinning galaxy of clichés for writer/director Polley to choose from here, but somehow she skips past them (well, almost all) and delivers a shimmering and raw ode to the ferocity of desire and the heartbreak that so often follows it.
Polley’s window into her story about the near impossibility of happiness is Margot, a twitchy and lonely-eyed young woman played by Michelle Williams as another of her doomed outsider romantics. A writer for the Canadian tourism board whose specialty appears to be pamphlet copy, Margot lives in Toronto on the kind of shaded, curvy, and characterful treelined street that college graduates dream of. Her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) is as grounded as she is nervous, a steady presence who plays the same practical joke every morning and is diligently working through every recipe variation on chicken for a cookbook he’s writing. Her family is nonexistent, his is a great hive of crosstalking arguers who seem to have quickly enfolded Polley into their clangorous embrace.
Her problems start in the film’s deftly written opening scenes, where she is touring a parkland historical reenactment for work, and ends up chatting on the plane with the handsome and extremely flirty Daniel (Luke Kirby). Sharing a cab back from the airport, they discover that not only does he live close by, his apartment is actually across the street from her and Lou’s place. She reacts to this news much like a recovering addict would be upon discovering that a dealer had just moved into the downstairs apartment and was offering discounts to neighbors.
Soon, Margot – who seems to be in something of a pre-midlife funk already, and unable to concentrate at the best of times -- is a distracted mess, unable to stop staring out the window and making excuses to not-so-accidentally run into Daniel. The minor irritations that come with married life quickly take on outsized importance to her. As Margot freezes out Lou more and more, she and Daniel become increasingly brazen in their flirtation, culminating in a session of X-rated conversation at a bar that leaves her dizzied and drunk with desire.
Although Polley takes the lightning-zap intensity of Daniel and Margot’s attraction very seriously, there is also the understanding here that it could all just be a fling and nothing more. Buttressing the theme of addiction is the character of Lou’s sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), an alcoholic currently in recovery. Although she only crops up in a few scenes, Geraldine functions as something of a warning system for Margot, making it clear what the price will be for her if she runs off with Daniel and it turns out to not be love. The role could have been a painfully obvious one had Silverman not played it with such raw simplicity. Placing a shock-comic like Silverman in such a pivotal role was a risk for Polley, as was her casting of Rogen as a fairly straightforward and non-comedic character, but both of them pay off immensely.
The casting of Take This Waltz is even more critical than it normally would be for such a sprightly-written piece. Under normal circumstances, a wide array of actors could have been handed Polley’s curiously wise dialogue and made it sing. But the director who used all those monochromatic vistas in the quietly masterful Away from Her has here scorched the screen with the overexposed and rich colors of a fuzzed-out summer sunset. She goes for the details even when shooting at a distance, of dust motes in the air and a slight perspiration sheen on everybody’s skin, as though they were all ready to ripen. Fans are always buzzing in the background, heightening the sense of lazy sensuality. There’s even a critical moment of soaring beauty and crushing reality (scored, in an impossibly non-ridiculous fashion, to “Video Killed the Radio Star”) at an amusement park ride, just to underline Margot’s feeling of being on vacation from her life.
Even with all this warm texturing to the piece, Polley never goes for overripe posturing in a Tennessee Williams way. It’s a mellow film, for all the dangerous passion coursing in its veins. Take This Waltz works its story like a grownup version of some young adult novel about a lonely protagonist whose life changed forever after one magical summer. The problem for Margot is that she’s an adult and when an adolescent passion comes along, it has the potential to destroy more than it creates.