It’s never fun to watch someone you care about engage in destructive behaviour, but usually you can just about see the reason why they’re doing it. Being a sensible human being with an eye on the bigger picture, you can tell that your friend’s abuse of drugs or alcohol isn’t going to end well, but as a short-term solution it’s hard to argue with the results. Your brother maybe drives too fast, but when you see the spark in his eyes as he makes all those instinctive decisions the appeal of the irresponsible is obvious. Same with casual sex and overspending and picking up the extra tub of Ben and Jerry’s to complement a two-pizza Friday. As Chris Rock observed on an unrelated subject: I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I understand.
Take This Waltz follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a woman who is desperately addicted to novelty. She’s got a pretty good handle on things when we first meet her – five years married to Lou (Seth Rogan), enjoying family life and sticking out an uninspiring job – until she meets her neighbour when they’re hundreds of miles from home and the thought of having something new gets under her skin. If Take This Waltz were a more predictable film, then Daniel (Luke Kirby) would come with a huge slice of charming, or devilishly handsome, or dangerously different to accompany his fresh-man-smell appearance in Margot’s life – but he really doesn’t. He is bland, not particularly funny and doesn’t have much of a raw sexual presence. He’s an artist, but not a particularly accomplished or confident one. He doesn’t radiate the passionate intensity that might attract a bored suburban moth to his luminescent personality. He is, essentially, just a guy. And his unsingular guyness particularly suffers in comparison to the relationship Margot clearly enjoys with her husband. Lou is (as all Seth Rogen characters should be), easygoing, charming, witty and supportive. Their chemistry and admiration for each other feels genuine – they feel like a solid, real couple. When Margot keeps finding excuses to extricate herself from a nurturing environment to chase her doe-eyed, adolescent crush on a cipher, the audience finds itself bewildered and ostracised from a film that seems to want us to go along with Margot’s desire, but cannot provide any reason why we should.
And the film keeps stringing us along on this path. Margot eventually gives in and runs away from her absolutely functional marriage to be with her hollow crush. In the most bravura shot of a beautifully photographed film, the camera circles the loft apartment the Margot and Daniel set up their life together in, with 90% of it centred around athletic sex on the bed the is the focal point of their home – and by extension, lives – until eventually the bed gets moved aside for a staid afternoon on the couch in front of a TV show neither of them are really watching. ‘Okay’, the audience thinks, ‘we get it now – the new relationship was shallow, and now the physical spark has died, Margot will realise what she gave up, move back with Lou, and we can feel rewarded for knowing better than she does’. But she doesn’t. Margot is more or less as happy with Daniel as she was with Lou. Maybe she’ll get itchy feet again in a few years – certainly her solo ride on the curious underground waltzer (a fairground ride that appears to be designed and operated by a carny Tyler Durden) seems to indicate the freshness is more important to Margot in a relationship than compatibility – but that shift is what makes her happy.
In filmic terms, once the pieces of the story all come together, Take This Waltz makes perfect sense, slotting together in the viewer’s brain and leaving you satisfied. There was never any need for chemistry between Margot and Daniel, because that wasn’t the point of their relationship. It’s not until you get to the end of that journey that you can see why Margot would spend so much energy pursuing someone who is objectively a worse guy on any level than her husband – Margot can be happy with anyone as long as she isn’t used to them. What this does though, is make the film more difficult to enjoy while you’re actually watching it. You’re spending so much time frowning at Margot’s unfathomable decisions, groaning at the trite things that Daniel says, desperately hoping that Margot realises what the right thing to do is that you find yourself resenting the characters the film seems to be telling you that you should be rooting for to get together. There were several walk-outs from the screening I attended at the moments where the ‘Margot, forget this arsehole and go home!’ tension was at its highest (though, to be fair, a couple of those walk-outs were probably more to do with the unexpected full-frontal multiple granny nudity). Once you reach the end of the film however, and you can see that the film is about a destructive addiction to novelty, rather than sex or a mundane marriage, that you appreciate that the film has actually – quite masterfully – put you in the position of Margot’s loved ones, trying to fathom her inexplicable actions.
So does this make Take This Waltz a good film? If the experience of watching the film is much less enjoyable than the experience of having watched the film, how worthwhile is that a way to spend two hours? The photography of the film is delightful, and the performances of Rogen, Williams and particularly Sarah Silverman as Margot’s alcoholic sister-in-law are all excellent and thoroughly engaging throughout – but the plot and Daniel’s personality-void do weigh heavily on your experience of the film until it all gets tied together in the final reel. As a piece of art, its tremendously successful, as entertainment it is frustrating, but understandably so. I have no idea whether I want to watch it again, but it’s definitely on my mind. What defines your addiction to films – the moment or the reflection?