No one would ever mistake Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz for a generic rom-com. It’s too packed with highly specific, often flagrantly odd details, from the way married couple Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen playfully pillow-talk in goofy voices into each other’s eyeballs to the scene where Williams cracks up during a water-aerobics class with Rogen’s sister (Sarah Silverman), and eventually gets publicly shamed for her lack of bladder control. The form of the movie is familiar—person in stable-but-stagnant relationship meets someone new and begins to question everything—but actor-turned-writer/director Polley (following up her remarkable 2006 directorial debut, Away From Her) both injects new life into the formula and loses her way somewhat by adding thick levels of idiosyncrasy. Take This Waltz is simultaneously a coming-of-age film, a love story, a breakup story, and an indie quirkfest, and it tries to do so many things at once that it can’t hit many of its marks cleanly. But at least it’s never boring, and rarely predictable.
Williams stars as a freelance writer comfortably married to Rogen, a cookbook author who spends most of his time experimenting with chicken recipes. Their partnership is close and familiar, characterized by baby talk, wrestling, and the kind of private verbal games that spring up between couples, like their discomfiting habit of describing creative ways they’d like to mutilate each other. But their toxic cuteness curdles when Williams meets neighbor Luke Kirby, a quieter, more intense man whose habit of undermining her and putting her down somehow draws her. There’s nothing particularly dark or domineering about Kirby, who banters along with her, but he’s franker and more aggressive than Rogen, and his conversation comes without a sense of childish play, and with distinct sexual undertones. (Or overtones, during a sedately erotic scene where he builds a sexual fantasy between the two of them over drinks.) In some ways, he’s a Mild Pixie Dream Guy, full of his own twee idiosyncrasies—he’s a rickshaw-puller by day and an artist in secret—and newly arrived in the world, free of backstory or friends of his own, ready to pull Williams from her stasis.
Early in the film, Williams pretends to need a wheelchair in order to get preferred boarding and a helpful attendant on a plane trip; when Kirby calls her on her behavior, she admits to hating travel because she doesn’t like “being in between things,” with the risk of missing connections or getting lost. That conversation forms the all-too-obvious backbone of the film, as she tries to choose between Rogen and Kirby, but without any of the clarity a film like this usually suggests. Both men are troubled and complicated, with needs and barriers, and Williams is no prize herself. Caught in a place of possible contentment between childhood and adulthood, but suddenly seeing new options, she’s confused, contradictory, and sometimes outright off-putting. And Polley doesn’t glamorize anyone present; Williams, so polished and beautiful in My Week With Marilyn, looks like a real person here, with shiny skin and puffy eyes. The camera sees her, like everyone else, flaws and all.
The general problem with Take This Waltz is that everyone’s flaws pile up to a distracting degree. Kirby is periodically snide and hateful; Williams is erratic and more than willing to inconvenience other people for her own comfort; Rogen, while dialed back considerably from his more manic roles, is a variation on the smug man-child he plays so often. Even Silverman has to contend with melodramatic, plot-provoking alcoholism. The film is so obsessed with small detail and drawn-out, atypical conversations on broad but symbolically significant topics that the big picture goes fuzzy. In particular, it’s unclear why exactly Kirby is attracted to a woman who’s so far from maturity, and so unwilling to take the next steps, and why Williams is so quick to take his mocking as a come-on. Their relationship, composed as it is of odd little moments, is almost as unpleasant as her marriage to Rogen. Polley gives her film a rich texture, filling each scene with background characters and a busy sonic landscape of jangling music, barking dogs, and buzzing insects. Her sense of smallness is admirable, and speaks to a filmmaker unwilling to coast on familiar tropes and obvious characterizations. But the fine focus makes for an unbalanced experience, where all the little pieces never fully add up into a coherent whole.