Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock **
Directed By: Ang Lee.
Written By: James Schamus based on the book by Elliot Tiber & Tom Monte.
Starring: Demetri Martin (Elliot Teichberg), Henry Goodman (Jake Teichberg), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Emile Hirsch (Billy), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dan), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Dan Fogler (Devon), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Mamie Gummer (Tisha), Liev Schreiber (Vilma), Paul Dano (VW Guy), Kelli Garner (VW Girl).

There is a good story lurking somewhere beanth the surface of Taking Woodstock, and it’s a shame that neither the movie, nor the book it is based on, does a very good job of telling it. When we think about Woodstock, we think about the music, the rain, the mud, the drugs and the hippies. But Taking Woodstock tells the story for a different perspective. Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin) was a closeted gay man who was helping his parents Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) run their old motel in the Catskills in upstate New York. The bank is about ready to call in their mortage, and things look hopeless. That is until Elliot finds out that a huge concert has just lost its permit in nearby Watkill. They need another outdoor venue and fast. And Elliot has just what they need. Soon the town of White Lake is flooded with workers setting up a new stage, and hippies from around the country show up in town. The town is outraged, but there is nothing they can do about it. The experience of being around so many people who are comfortable in their own skin, makes Elliot accept who he is, and in a strange way, accept who his parents - who have always driven him crazy - are as well.

This probably sounds like an interesting story, and admittedly it is. It’s too bad that the movie never really settles down to tell its story. The first hour of the film is actually quite entertaining, if flawed, in telling the story of the leadup to the concert itself. The second hour however goes wildly off the rails, as director Ang Lee and his screenwriter James Schamus appear to be more interested in creating a headtrip of the movie (and not even a good one at that). Whatever interesting insights the movie had to offer about Elliot, his parents and the townspeople of White Lake, are lost in their attempt to be “trippy”.

Perhaps it was not really their fault. I just finished Tiber’s book that is the basis of this movie, and he does not seem all that interested in the people of White Lake either. To him, they were little more than uptight, pathetic, anti-semetic, homophobic jerks. And for much of the book, Tiber does not even appear that interested in telling us the story of what happened, and instead he likes to ramble on about the “truth and beauty” of the people he met at Woodstock, and how wonderful it all was. Sometimes, the person at the center of the story - in this case Elliot - is not the right person to tell it.

What keeps the movie as interesting as it is, are the performances. Demetri Martin, best known for his terrific standup, and his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, here slides effortlessly into the role of Elliot. His hopeless optimism and seemingly never ending naivete is somewhat entertaining, and funny throughout. He is is practically every scene in the film, and he carries the film quite well during that first hour. During the second hour, where he has to spend more time stoned and screaming, he is not as effective, but I wonder anyone could have competed with Lee’s constant shifting color palette, and his lackadaisal pace. We keep watching this part of the film - the part that actually takes place during the concert itself - waiting for the music to start - and it never does. While I’m all for taking an original view of Woodstock, it seems kind of a ripoff that we never get to see any performances at the greatest concert of all time.

The rest of the cast is in a similar boat. We cannot help but like Goodman as Elliot’s father, long beaten down by life and a domineering wife, who finally feels alive again when he’s given a purpose. Staunton is given a one note role as the stereotypical shrill Jewish mother, hording money and an expert at giving guilt trips to her son. We do not like her character, and to be honest, whenever she is onscreen, I wished she would go away as soon as possible. Jonathan Groff fares much better as Michael Lang, the concert promoter. No matter what is going on, he seems completely at ease and calm. “Relax”, he keeps telling Elliot, “Everything is going to be fine”. Somehow when he says it, we believe him. I do wish the filmmakers had done more with Liev Schreiber than simply put him in a dress. He plays a former Army Sergeant, and grandfather (he married young), who shows up and offers his help as a security guard. Why when you have such an interesting character is he shunted to the background? Worse yet is Emile Hirsch as Billy, a Vietnam vet prone to flashbacks and drug abuse. They do nothing original with this character, and although Hirsch plays the role to the hilt, he cannot save it. We keep expecting Jeffrey Dean Morgan to do something as one of the townspeople who is not happy with the concert, but the film seems to forget that he - and the rest of the town for that matter - is there at all.

Ang Lee is one of the best filmmakers in the world, but here I don’t think he ever really thought through the material. Here is a filmmaker whose films include such great ones as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution - complex films that concentrated on their characters. Here, Lee does not seem as interested in his characters. They are all one note and fairly uninteresting. It’s too bad, because I have a feeling that if the filmmakers had spent more time fleshing out the characters, and less time trying to be trippy, then they could have a had a great film. As it stands, Taking Woodstock is not even a good one.

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