Directed by Ang LeeStarring Demetri Martin,Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirschand Liev SchreiberRated R*3*
Goes well with: Woodstock, The Hulk, Hair
By now, you've probably heard that 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the iconic music festival attended by more than a half-million hippies. Janis Joplin played. The Who were there. So were The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Both Joe Cocker and Country Joe and the Fish gave performances there that now define them, and Jimi Hendrix closed the show with his legendary rendition of “Star Spangled Banner.” It remains one of the most important events of the 1960s, thanks in no small part to the excellent documentary Woodstock that's worth a viewing even if you think hippie music isn't your thing. Woodstock is such an important part of our shared culture that it deserves better treatment than Ang Lee's new comedy, Taking Woodstock, which essentially turns one of the largest touchstones of the last half-century into a coming-of-age, let's-save-the-family-farm movie.
You'd expect more from Lee, who is unquestionably a talented director. But his direction here, aside from an impressive sequence or two, is lackluster and flabby, like a loose joint of skanky weed. Now, the fault lies primarily in the screenplay, cranked out by longtime collaborator James Schamus. This is a guy who's written several of Lee's less-successful entries, like Lust, Caution and The Hulk, and has also been involved with some of Lee's better ones, such as Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But though the duo's had hits and misses, they've never had less success than they do with Taking Woodstock.
Another part of the problem is Demetri Martin, who's perfectly suited to the wry sketches he does on his Comedy Central show but who may have been cast as the lead because he usually wears his hair like Ringo Starr, circa 1965. He just doesn't have the chops to truly give this role the depth necessary to save the film.
Martin is Elliot Tiber, a young man who's given up his interior-design business in New York and returned upstate to help his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) salvage their dismal Catskills hotel. Deeply in debt and on the verge of foreclosure, he's hoping his annual music festival will raise enough scratch to keep the place open one more year. As the chairman of the local chamber of commerce, he already has a permit, which comes in handy when he learns that a neighboring town has just given a monstrous hippie festival the boot. One phone call later, a chopper descends on the property, and he's setting up meetings between festival organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Goff) and land-owner Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), the two actors who manage to rise above the material. Soon, the town (White Lake, where Woodstock actually went down) is awash is patchouli, naked hippie chicks and, most of all, cash. The hotel is paid off, and Elliott spends the rest of the movie trying to put some distance between him and his parents and make his way to the show, the requisite acid trip notwithstanding.
It's a good idea, but it never comes together. Of course, shoddy script aside, there's no shortage of high-wattage actors who want a taste of Lee's directing power. But Emile Hirsch, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Paul Dano and Dan Fogler in small, thankless roles can't fix a script that's marked by thin, stereotypical characters. Nor can they make an unfunny comedy funny—Taking Woodstock's humor, designed to be warm and wise, feels forced and phony, like a bag of bad 'shrooms purchased in the parking lot of a Limp Bizkit show.
Look, there are lessons from the '60s we should all get behind. I'm all for coming together and loving one another right now. But even if we all preached free love, took to the streets to end unnecessary wars and stopped shaving our pits, Taking Woodstock would still Woodsuck.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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