Friday, June 29, 2012

Film Review: "Take This Waltz" (****)

Putting aside notions of cinematic greatness briefly, it's rare for a truly delectable film to find its way to the surface, and even rarer for such a film to have a genuine kick to it. The last film I recall under similar circumstances was "Certified Copy", which went a long way with reviewers around my corner of the net. Before that, "White Material" is a film that got such a spectator's joy out of me. Both manage to deal with rather difficult emotional or social issues, but they're visually worthy of glorious visual consumption. "Take This Waltz" also finds its way along that path, be it with a much more scrumptious palette.

The film follows sweet Margot, played with childlike simplicity by the ever-lovable Michelle Williams, living in Toronto, Canada with her cookbook writer husband Lou, performed with equal, though not as fragile, simplicity by Seth Rogen. The unexpected power-couple is having a recent boom in mainstream cinema, with pairings like Steve Carell and Keira Knightley or Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum gaining much favor for their singularly unexpected chemistry. Rogen and Williams can be brought into that circle now, since both have such a warm mesh with each other. Amongst other things, it makes portions of this film seem like a big bear hug.

And the other parts of the film are something decidedly different, as Margot sparks a dangerous friendship with a neighbor she meets on a business retreat. All the sweetness and endearing qualities of Lou are given counterweight to this passionate and razor sharp quality that Daniel, played with cutting-romanticism by Luke Kirby, exudes. It creates a pressure cooker for Margot as the contrast of these two different types of love push themselves in on her, making her situation in the middle all the more claustrophobic and terrifying. The tragedy at the core of the film isn't as steely as, say, "Blue Valentine", but it kicks with equal force.

There are a number of ways this film could have gone, plenty of which play it generally in the safe atmosphere, but I am genuinely surprised by how focused writer-director Sarah Polley was in telling her story with all the hardships. Just because these characters are ever so sweet and precious doesn't stop the director from treating them like human beings. They make tough decisions and mistakes, and it's all about what they'd naturally do in those circumstances. The film's third act takes such a turn for the strange in how it embraces its meaning to the bitter end, and I do mean bitter. There are few more legitimate blows I've received this year and been glad I did.

Don't let that give you the inclination that "Take This Waltz" is an utter downer, because there's a sweetness that goes straight to the film's core. Polley writes characters and relationships in a way that would make Nora Ephron proud, and Michelle Williams is the ultimate symbol of that sweetness. She personifies that nearly bright optimism with an unhappiness that is so constant and essential to who Margot is. Williams nails each moment, painting the spare moments with either exuberant and informing quirk or face mushing emotionality. To be perfectly honest, it's a career best for the actress, and though she's likely to be overlooked in the mess of the season, she should win the Oscar for this performance. Thank heavens "My Week with Marilyn" didn't take.

Seth Rogen also taps into something reserved, though not different from what he's done before. It's not overloading on the raunch factor, but instead very honest and engaging. When he does pull a real laugh, it floors on a level that's hilarious, but not simply for the sake of it. Even Sarah Silverman, who could so easily sink into something pointless, finds real urgency in her alcoholic best friend character. "There's this looming waiting-to-fail-ness," Silverman delivers with a tone of foreboding and equal understanding of herself. She brings home the film's powerful feelings of emptiness in the sparse moments she has, and is truly quite surprising.

And even if the film were flat on all those accounts, it would still be a completely worthwhile visual treat, burgeoning through the screen with colour and zest like a well cooked meal. Toronto just feels so warm and heated and idyllic, you just wish you could live there in all the heat, sweat, and occasional misery of it, just for that warmth of color. Luc Montpellier doesn't just light and colour the film with passion, but finds careful ways of nicking Polley's message under the screen in a manner that creates a sweetly sickening feeling at times. And you've got to love a film that finds a legitimate reason for playing "Video Killed the Radio Star".

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