Friday, August 28, 2009

Faking Woodstock, Ang Lee misfires

I don't know if Taking Woodstock is the most negligible movie in Ang Lee's often-brilliant career, but it's far from the most memorable. Situated somewhere between an addled teen comedy and a light-hearted social document, the movie proves more interesting in outline than as a 120-minute feature.

In 1969, Elliot Tiber (a real guy) figured out how to bypass local objections and bring the Woodstock concert to New York State. According to the movie, Tiber offered his parents' rundown resort as a possible site for what would become one of the decade's most mammoth events. When it turned out, the resort was too small, Tiber introduced the concert's organizers to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who offered up a sprawling field for the event that would come to be one of the iconic symbols of pop culture. Based on Tiber's book, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life, Lee's movie has an appropriately disheveled feel that suits the material but results in an often-shabby moviegoing experience.

Working with screenwriter James Schamus, Lee further muddies the Woodstock waters by focusing on Tiber's family. Tiber, a gay man, is the son of Jewish parents who are presented in caricatured fashion by Lee. As Elliot's mom, Imelda Staunton, gives an offensively stereotyped performance as money-obsessed Jewish mother, and Henry Goodman follows suit as a father who quietly goes along with his wife's intrusions. He looks as if he hasn't bathed in years.

Elliot (Demitri Martin) spends the summer with his parents, leaving his life as a New York City interior designer to help save the ramshackle El Monaco resort, which is on the verge of being lost to the banks. Prior to Woodstock, the resort is largely uninhabited, save for a preposterous theater troupe -- the Earthlight Players -- who run around naked and stage unrecognizable versions of Chekhov.

When the Woodstock hordes arrive, the movie perks up, and we see what might be the strangest performance of the year so far: Liev Schreiber plays Vilma, an ex-Marine drag queen who handles security at the resort when it becomes the headquarters for festival's staff. Here's a shocker: Much dope is smoked, and Elliot even runs into a couple of benevolent hippies (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) who introduce him to the mind-transforming powers of LSD.

Some of the scenes at Woodstock capture the feeling of a large crowd that -- at least on its fringes -- was beset by a strange mixture of ardor and aimlessness. And when the festival ends, the enthusiastic attendees slouch their way homeward, looking more like refugees than renegades. In all, we don't see much of Woodstock. (If you want to revisit Woodstock, seek out Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary.)

Along the way to the movie's fatigued finale, Emile Hirsch shows up in the cliched role of a Vietnam veteran possessed by the demons of flashbacks. Hirsch seems to be doing his best to evoke the bug-eyed insanity Dennis Hopper put on display in Apocalypse Now.

By the movie's end, Lee finds ways to comment on the liberating and naive qualities that seized the '60s, juxtaposing them with other realities; i.e., the fact that Woodstock was conceived as a money-making enterprise and that large gatherings of music-loving kids don't always turn out to be testimonials to flower power. A quick reference to Altamont -- the violence-prone California festival staged later that year -- can be found at the end of the movie.

By the time, I saw a preview screening of Taking Woodstock, I'd already had enough Woodstock nostalgia to last a life time, this being the 40th anniversary of an event that some regard as the center of the pop-cultural universe. Lee's movie did serve one useful purpose, though: More than ever, it made me want to live in the present. Or as the late Henny Youngman might have put, "Take Woodstock, please."

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