In the Seinfeld episode "The Frogger," Jerry breaks up with his girlfriend in a montage that wickedly satirizes breakup clichés. It's really funny.
There is a similar breakup montage in the romantic drama Take This Waltz. I regret to inform you that we're not supposed to think it's funny, even though writer-director Sarah Polley likewise employs abrupt emotional shifts and snippets of random-yet-fraught dialogue. The montage isn't the only miscalculation. I see the potential for a fine film, but too often Take This Waltz lapses into self-parody.
The potential lies in the talents of the lead performers. This is a good dramatic turn by Seth Rogen, who plays Lou, a cookbook author who thinks he is happily married. Rogen finds notes of brittleness and sadness, as well as humor. Then there is Michelle Williams, who as Lou's wife Margot, a writer, is radiant, even though Polley too often has her moping and frowning. There's a moment when the evening light catches Williams' beautiful face as she rides in a rickshaw, and it's the kind of image that justifies cinema's existence.
The rickshaw belongs to Daniel (Luke Kirby), the guy who shows up to cause trouble with Margot and Lou's marriage. (That, in a nutshell, is the plot.) Daniel is a brooder, a rebel, and in another kind of movie he would ride a motorcycle. Here he runs around Toronto pulling his rickshaw, and as with the breakup montage, the effect is comic in a way that doesn't quite seem intended.
True, there are deliberately comic moments, and some are very effective. Several are provided by Sarah Silverman, who is typically coarse and hilarious as Margot's sister-in-law. Williams and Rogen have amusing, sweet scenes together. They're baby talkers, and that detail would stand on its own well enough. Polley heavy-handedly uses it to emphasize the marriage's immaturity. It's not the only example of Polley falling back on a cutesy, writerly device.
The main problem is the stilted, trite dialogue. Example: Margot and Daniel first meet at a historical site in Nova Scotia. In a context too silly to explain, he teases her. Annoyed, she replies, "You gotta lotta nerve, Mister." The line sounds like something that drifted in from a 1930s screwball comedy, as opposed to words uttered by a 30ish North American woman circa 2012. The film overflows with dumb lines like that, as when the bad boy Daniel solemnly asks Margot, "Are you afraid of being afraid?"
Adultery-themed melodramas are a grand movie tradition. Take This Waltz doesn't serve it well.