TAKING WOODSTOCK sees Ang Lee, director of tense, beautiful tragic romances - LUST, CAUTION and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN - take a step back into gentle comedy. The resulting film is warm-hearted, earnest, occasionally funny, but also somewhat ramshackle, meandering and ultimately, unsatisfying. Interesting characters are given too little screen time in an ensemble film, uninteresting characters are left to over-act wildly, and the third act acid trip is a complete waste of half an hour. Maybe the problem is that Ang Lee doesn't quite have the conviction he needs to make a film about a famous concert that IS NOT a concert film. He wants to tell the story of the family who's run-down motel became the HQ of the organisers and the impact the festival had on them. He wants to make a point about Woodstock being, for most people, about the journey there and the people you met, rather than the concert itself. But Ang Lee does cave in and gives us his protagonist journeying toward the mainstage and getting dragged into acid trips and mud-slides. It's just too much of a tease! Either focus on the motel, or give us the concert, but don't flail around in the mud!
The movie starts of well. We have a likable protagonist called Elliot - a sweet kid, who's compromising on his dream of going to San Francisco because he's helping out on his parent's run-down motel in the Catskills and because he can't quite admit that he's gay. Faced with foreclosure, he decides to invite the Woodstock festival to relocate to his parents' motel and his neighbour's land, when the folks in that town rescind the permit, scared of thousands of freaks showing up. Before you know it, the cash is rolling in and Elliot's conservative parents are surrounded with hippies and beats. Both they, and Elliot, experience many-splendored life, and then the festival rolls of out town.
The period setting and casting are absolutely spot on, with the exception of rather broad performances from Emile Hirsch as Billy and Dan Fogler as Devon, the Earthlight Player. Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman are particularly good as Elliot's rather flummoxed parents, and Demetri Martin is affable and congenial as Elliot. But the two most interesting characters get way too little screen time. The first is Eugene Levy in a fairly straight performance as farmer Max Yasgur, the guy who actually rented out his fields to the festival. Why was such a provincial farmer so very liberal minded? Fascinating, but unexplored. The second fascinating, but too little explored character, was Vilma, a former US marine turned transvestite, played by Liev Schreiber. What a wonderful character! And what a fascinating nascent relationship with Elliot's father! I would have loved to spend more time with them. But instead we get Ang Lee trying, very clumsily, to speak to Vietnam in the form of the cliche of a battle-traumatised Vietnam vet, and to speak to the counter-culture in the form of a completely pointless acid trip. And when Ang Lee tries to create some real dramatic tension with a final act revelation involving Elliot's mother, it all seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Shame.
TAKING WOODSTOCK played Cannes 2009. It opened earlier this year in the US, Australia, Canada, Sweden, the USA, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Estonia, France and Spain. It is currently on release in Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, India, Italy, Taiwan, Belgium and Greece. It opens in the UK on November 6th, in Argentina and Mexico on December 10th and in Brazil on January 15th 2010.