By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Ang Lee
STARS Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton
A major disappointment from director Ang Lee, Taking Woodstock purports to tell the true story of how the legendary youth festival came together in time for a few blissful days of peace and music during the summer of '69. Forget, for a moment, that Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary Woodstock basically functions as the beginning, middle and end of the event's filmic chronicle; on its own terms, Taking Woodstock is a dramatically shaky work, misguided in some spots and misleading in others.
Lacking the narrative clarity of Almost Famous and the visual ecstasy of Across the Universe, Taking Woodstock rarely comes into focus on any level. At its center is the dull character of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a New Yorker who's trying to help his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) save their ramshackle motel at the same time he learns about an upcoming music festival that's just been banned by a neighboring town. Working in sync with the concert's promoters as well as a neighboring farmer (Eugene Levy) with plenty of prime real estate on which to host a major event, Elliot makes the prospect of the "Woodstock Music & Art Fair" a reality. But first, there are myriad problems to confront, including disapproving townsfolk, building codes, a sudden influx of hippies (lots of hippies), and, perhaps most harrowing of all, a mother whose behavior is overbearing at best and monstrous at worst.
Staunton's generally a hoot when she's in ham mode, but she tests viewer patience here with a performance as an abrasive Jewish mom that borders on caricature. She's hardly alone with her "off" performance, though: Martin never makes Elliot an interesting protagonist, while Emile Hirsch grows tiresome as a hyperactive Vietnam vet. Faring best by far is Tony Award nominee Jonathan Groff, who in his film debut plays beatific festival organizer Michael Lang with the right mix of savvy and sensitivity.
The screenplay by Lee's frequent collaborator James Schamus fails to follow through on many plot threads. It took me half the movie to be certain that Elliot is gay, and the scenes in which that's established are timidly presented a curious stance coming from the guys who made Brokeback Mountain. Other storylines are similarly introduced and then abandoned, meaning that while many of the characters are getting satisfactorily high, audiences are unfortunately left with a movie that's only half-baked.