Movie review: 'Take This Waltz' prone to clumsy missteps

Al Alexander

With the heartbreaking Alzheimer’s saga, “Away From Her,” actress Sarah Polley made an emphatic statement that she had arrived as a writer-director with much to convey about the beauty and frailty of human relationships. She continues in that vein with her sophomore effort, “Take This Waltz,” but the results are significantly less convincing.

While hardly a complete failure, “Waltz” nevertheless finds Polley dancing to the beat of a simmering romantic triangle with two left feet. The missteps mount from the opening bars, when a bored, emotionally stunted Toronto housewife (Michelle Williams) encounters a brooding young artist (Luke Kirby) while she’s administering a thrashing to – holy foreshadowing – a cowering adulterer at a living-history emporium (think Plimoth Plantation) in Nova Scotia. The pair trade quips and think nothing of their meeting until – through extremely incredible circumstances – they wind up on the same connecting flight home from Montreal. And wouldn’t you know it, they’ve been assigned adjoining seats, enabling them to chat, flirt and make bedroom eyes. Then the incredulities really kick in. Turns out, Williams’ blonde pixie, Margo, and her chicken-loving schlub of a husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), reside directly across the street from Kirby’s Daniel.

What were the odds? Almost as extreme as the chances that the neighborhood hunk would be a rickshaw driver making enough money ferrying people about to afford a home in the trendy Beaches section of Toronto. Those glaring contrivances continue inside Margo and Lou’s abode, where the couple live quite prosperously despite neither (he’s penning a chicken cookbook on spec; she freelances writing travel brochures) holding a regular job. It’s a wonder they get anything done anyway, considering the amount of time they spend exchanging baby talk, playing itsy-bitsy spider and bestowing upon one another bizarre endearments like, “I love you so much I’m going to mash your head in with a potato masher.”

Yes, quirkiness and tweeness comfortably coexist in every corner of “Take This Waltz” (the title culled from a Leonard Cohen song) until Daniel takes to stalking Margo, seemingly every time she leaves her house. Initially, she feigns indifference toward his sometimes crude advances, but Polley’s preposterous script demands that Margo eventually betray what appears, at least on the surface, to be a happy marriage. Can pain and suffering be far behind? Not for them; us. And, believe me, this movie inflicts sizeable hurt – mostly on your patience, as Polley drags you through about a dozen false endings before finally making her less-than-profound point about relationships being fickle.

What keeps you sticking around are the many flourishes Polley applies, from cinematographer Luc Montpellier’s sparkling depiction of the boho-chic Beaches neighborhood to an unforgettable shower scene in which Williams and Sarah Silverman (playing Margo’s recovering-alcoholic sister-in-law) are spotted chatting buck naked amid a half-dozen other, much older, women whose unsculpted bodies stand testament to the forces of gravity. It is by far Polley’s bravest move as a director. It also serves as an ideal metaphor for the film’s central conceit that, as much as you would like it to, nothing lasts.

Polley and Montpellier reach the top of their game, though, when Margo and Daniel go on a daytrip to the Center Island amusement park and hop aboard the Scrambler, which they ride around and around while The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays on the soundtrack. It’s both beautiful to behold and moving (literally) in its representation of the cyclical nature of life and love.

Unlike “Away From Her,” which earned Julie Christie a much-deserved Oscar nomination, Polley succeeds only sporadically this time in coaxing strong performances from her actors. The lone exception is Silverman, who’s never been better. And that holds true even when Polley calls on her character to fall off the wagon and play out a scene involving baby chicks that’s so ridiculous it’s not to be missed. Still, I had trouble buying Silverman as Rogen’s sister; the two look nothing alike. But then it’s clear from the get-go that Rogen is miscast. Not only does he fail to generate chemistry opposite Williams, he also struggles every time the situation turns dramatic or intense.

Kirby is no great shakes, either, often proving more creepy than seductive. And he, too, struggles to generate heat with Williams, who is basically giving a second-rate reprisal of her bored, ennui-stricken wife from the vastly superior “Blue Valentine.” In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about that film and lamenting the absence of the volatile chemistry she created opposite Ryan Gosling. None of that fire and passion shows up here, as Williams arguably gives one of her weakest performances. Give her credit, though, for having the balls to openly flaunt her naked body, be it in that evocative shower scene or dropping her pants twice to pee in front of her male costars – and us. And she makes sure those tinkles leave you flush with the idea that there’s no surer sign of a faltering romance than peeing in front of your partner. The same could be said for Polley’s too-cute-by-a-mile movie in which we’re laid witness to so much expelled waste, “Take This Waltz” loses nearly all of its magic – and offers little hope of ever getting it back.

TAKE THIS WALTZ (R for language, nudity and sexual situations.) Cast includes Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman. Written and directed by Sarah Polley. 2 stars out of 4.