If you’d told me that Seth Rogen would be the pleasant surprise of a quiet indie relationship drama starring Michelle Williams, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. This is her territory, after all, if it is anyone’s. (See also: Blue Valentine.) But even as the rest of Sarah Polley‘s Take This Waltz lurches between moments of understated heartbreak and scenes of thudding obviousness, Rogen quietly proves once and for all that despite his comedy roots, he’s got some serious dramatic chops.

At the center of Take This Waltz is Margot (Williams), who despite being 28 years old and married is something of an overgrown child. We know this because the movie takes great pains to emphasize it over and over. Margot pouts and giggles, has pom poms on her socks, orders milk on airplanes, engages in baby talk with her husband, loves amusement parks, etc., etc., etc. Any womanly sexuality is downplayed, which is unfortunate because the plot sees Margot caught in the very adult predicament of having to choose between her perfectly nice husband Lou (Rogen) and their more dashing new neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby). It’s easy to tell what she sees in each of them. It’s harder to understand why either of them take such an interest in this bratty kid.

Nevertheless, Margot’s dilemma simmers for a while and then finally boils over — and that’s where Take This Waltz sets itself apart from many movies of similar ilk. During the first two-thirds, we’re in familiar territory as Margot begins to question her marriage. Then she actually makes her choice, and we get to follow the characters as they deal with the consequences. The final stretch of the film is as uneven as anything that came before it, but it’s an interesting, unusual turn, and I found myself wishing they’d compressed the standard-issue romantic entanglements and spent more time on the fallout.

On both sides of Margot’s decision, Take This Waltz tends to shine brightest when Polley lets her dreamy, saturated visuals do the talking. In fact, the single most powerful scene is one in which no words are exchanged at all. Margot and Daniel decide to ride the Scrambler at Centre Island, and for the next few minutes we watch as the characters experience a whole roller coaster of emotion in silence — wonder, longing, disappointment, exhilaration — as colorful lights dance across their face and “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays at top volume. Another wonderful, wordless moment strings together several sex scenes to follow the rise and fall of a relationship.

It’s just too bad that Polley doesn’t seem to trust her own abilities as visual artist, or her actors’ talents for conveying complexity. She weighs them down with overwritten monologues and groaningly obvious symbolism. To be fair, Margot is exactly the type of character who would go on a lenghty, oh-so-meaningful rant about her fear of connecting… flights. And Daniel’s decision to listen with interest rather than roll his eyes is indeed consistent with the kind of behavior a person might engage in if he thought he had a chance of getting laid. However, there’s no excuse for starting the film with Margot flogging a pretend adulterer at a historical reenactment park.

The actors make the best of it, though. Williams is unsparing in her portrayal of Margot, and it’s thanks to her talent that we can understand this character even when we don’t like her so much. Kirby doesn’t have much to do besides look desirable and desiring, but it can’t be denied that he’s quite good at both. But I found myself most impressed by Rogen. Although he’s had the occasional dramatic moment in his comedy projects, Take This Waltz is his first straightforwardly serious role, and he passes with flying colors. He gives Lou a sense of low-key dignity and purpose that make him more than just a pitiable cuckold. Casting directors, please take note.

/Film rating: 6.0 out of 10.0

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