Friday, September 4, 2009

Taking Woodstock: Bummer trip

Taking Woodstock (2009) • View trailer for Taking Woodstock
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and considerable casual (and chaste) nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.4.09
Buy DVD: Taking Woodstock• Buy Blu-Ray: Taking Woodstock [Blu-ray]

Demetri Martin's flat and lifeless central performance is the core problem with director Ang Lee's curiously uninvolving adaptation of Taking Woodstock, a saga that we can't help expecting to display more of the exhilarating atmosphere that was central to the famed counter-culture music festival.

But no. Just as Martin's Elliot Teichberg never quite makes it to the festival per se  the stage and its music always just off-camera, over the next hill  Lee never taps into the vibrant energy necessary to tell this story properly. Like Teichberg, who wanders about in a perpetual haze, as if he's already heavily influenced by the pills and other controlled substances he keeps refusing, Lee's film just doesn't catch fire.
Having spent all his time behind the scenes, helping or watching as scores of
individuals orchestrate the chaos that finally results in the three-day Woodstock
festival, Elliot (Demetri Martin, center foreground) finally leaves his family's
dilapidated Catskills motel and heads down the road, hoping to get his own
personal taste of counter-culture joy.

Julie Taymor's crazed, opulent Across the Universe, for all its grotesque excess, did a far better job of capturing the unbridled, 1960s-style joie de vivre that we keep wishing from Lee's film.

In fairness, these expectations are fueled mostly by this film's publicity campaign, which leads patrons to expect a full-immersion bath in the heady waters of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll ... but that's not really the story Lee sets out to tell.

James Schamus' script, based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber  yes, it's the same person, albeit with a slightly different name  focuses more on the unlikely events that allowed Elliot to turn his small community upside-down, and the impact the resulting chaos had on him personally. At least, that's where the screenplay wants to go, but Martin's performance is so colorless that we never get a sense of growth.

Although firmly planted in Greenwich Village in 1969, working as an interior designer and attempting to embrace his own sexuality via the gay rights movement  but the film leaves this aspect of his life awfully vague  Elliot is forced to return to the Catskills that summer, where his hapless parents are badly mis-managing the family business: a dumpy motel laughingly dubbed the El Monaco. The local bank is threatening to foreclose, but Elliot successfully wins a brief stay of execution.

One cannot imagine a worse choice of parental career, because Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) haven't the faintest trace of people skills. Sonia, in particular, is a blustering, overbearing, ill-kempt cross between a dock worker and a water buffalo: a rude, waspish misanthrope in whom the milk of human kindness must have curdled decades earlier.

Staunton, it must be acknowledged, tears into this role for all she's worth. God forbid you should request an extra towel for your room.

Needless to say, Sonia doesn't think much of the hippy-dippy "theatrical troupe" that has camped out in the El Monaco's barn, while preparing a play that seems little more than an excuse for the cast to prance about naked at the drop of a hat.

Elliot does his best to compensate and minimize the fallout from his parents' behavior. During these introductory scenes, we get a strong sense of both the family dynamic and the sleepy lifestyle of White Lake: the sort of deeply personal, often fractured character ties that have fascinated Lee since his career began, with films such as Eat Drink Man Woman and The Ice Storm.

Elliot also serves as chair of the local chamber of commerce  an intriguing position to hold, if he's usually in Greenwich Village  and in that capacity rubber-stamps himself a permit for the El Monaco's annual "music festival": of late no more than Elliot himself playing records on a phonograph. Apparently, White Lake offers little else.

Then fate intervenes. After learning that a planned "music and arts festival" has lost its permit from the neighboring town of Wallkill, Elliot impulsively calls producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) at Woodstock Ventures and offers three things: the El Monaco, as a base of operations; an introduction to neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who operates a 600-acre dairy farm just down the road; and the all-important permit.

What immediately follows is the equivalent of having uncorked several dozen genies from their bottles: a rising tsunami of people, plans and panic that quickly spirals beyond Elliot's control. Beyond Lang's control, as well ... although he seems quite pleased by that.

Once word gets out, Elliot becomes the town pariah responsible for all the "freaks" descending on White Lake. But nobody can do anything about it, because the permit is legally in hand. The few ill-advised efforts to close down the operation  via, for example, inspectors who cite dozens of "code infractions"  are solved the way Lang does business: with brown paper bags filled with cash.

And if that seems a bit cynically off-kilter, well, that's typical of the way this film proceeds. Numerous details seem mildly peculiar, such as Elliot's complete surprise when he's refused service at the local diner. (How dense can this guy be?)

Mostly, though, the problem is one of focus: Martin's Elliot is far from this story's most interesting character, even if Schamus' screenplay insists he should be.

Groff, for openers, has impressive presence as Lang, a stunningly handsome fellow with a beatific smile, who appears to have stepped off the stage from the Broadway production of Hair. But despite his outwardly calm and complacent manner  and a suggestion of New Age-ist harmlessness  Groff's eyes hold the smug self-assurance of a master negotiator who always gets what he wants. The duality is fascinating, and I wish the film spent more time with him.

But everybody pales alongside Liev Schreiber, who pops up as a cross-dressing ex-Marine named Vilma: a veritable force of nature who steals every scene he's in. Vilma volunteers to take charge of security detail guarding against disgruntled local townsfolk, and at the same time becomes something of a spiritual calming force for Elliot and his parents (not that it helps Sonia much).

Schreiber doesn't get a note wrong: Vilma's mildly self-mocking pose is deceptive  by design  and merely the superficial attitude of a complex soul utterly at peace. Schreiber's work is just as powerful, just as finely tuned as John Lithgow's Academy Award-nominated performance as Roberta Muldoon in 1982's adaptation of The World According to Garp.

And if there's any justice, Schreiber will earn his own Oscar nomination.

Other performances are less successful, starting with Emile Hirsch's wholly predictable turn as a disenchanted, recently returned Vietnam veteran: same-ol' same ol', and Hirsch brings nothing to the party. He's just as much a cliché as Elliot's eventual LSD experience: a wholly pointless sequence that seems inserted solely because Lee seems to feel it's necessary. (Believe me, it isn't.)

All of which brings us back to Sonia, a miserably unhappy woman so badly out of synch with these events that she appears to have been hauled in from an Ingmar Bergman film. Sonia and Jake are immigrant Russian Jews, and she clearly has Major Issues, although Schamus' script never has time to address them properly; a "big reveal" about Sonia's character, late in the action, is just as jarring as an eyebrow-raising jolt of anti-Semitism that passes without commentary.

We keep waiting for Sonia to have some sort of epiphany  to be won over by all these cheerful free spirits, the way her husband is  but it never happens. Levy's performance as the completely tolerant Yasgur, in great contrast, is a breath of fresh air. ("I've never met so many people who said please and thank you.")

Despite his best efforts, Lee never quite catches the Woodstock vibe, just as Elliot never quite makes it down to Yasgur's farm. Cynical viewers might wonder if this was a financial decision: Failing to spend time on the Woodstock stage means not having to pay royalties for the seminal performances of all that music. It's actually a smile-inducing relief when the soundtrack gives prominent placement to Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships" and Country Joe and the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag."

Ultimately, ironically, Lee's film merely proves what folks have been saying about Woodstock for 40 years: You hadda be there. And Taking Woodstock is far from the next best thing.

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