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Director Ang Lee’s got something for the gays. After the harrowing down-low love story between two dude sheepherders in “Brokeback Mountain” – a resplendently put-together piece of cinema that broke hearts and box-office projections, proving that straight filmmakers can create better queer films than some queer directors – he hones in on another homo protagonist. Who’s closeted. In the ’60s. In a comedy?
The gay factor isn’t the primary focus of “Taking Woodstock,” a film marking the legendary festival’s 40th anniversary that seems to serve the great Lee – whose two recent pieces, “Mountain” and 2007’s Chinese espionage film “Lust, Caution,” were damn heavy – more than those basking in its late-’60s nostalgia (or, for me, living it through another second-hand account). Here, he goes for pleasant instead of penetrating.
Part of the problem is the uncertainty of its own jumbled trajectory: Does it want to be the marshmallow fluff of movies, or something meatier, like the coming-of-age climax it reaches?
Lee, who adapted “Taking Woodstock” from James Schamus’ screenplay, probably couldn’t tell you, as he directs the story of Elliot Tiber (stand-up comedian Demetri Martin) – a blossoming entrepreneur who goes home to help out his parents, but then aches to break free and be openly gay. Finally.
His homosexuality, though, is treated like a footnote, and scenes involving it oddly arrive like an unwelcome visitor. Even the real-life Tiber’s involvement in the Stonewall Riots just months earlier, as discussed in his 2007 memoir, is overlooked.
Tiber is surely an interesting individual, well invested in the LGBT movement, but Schamus minimizes his gayness to an afterthought and molds him into something as one-dimensional as a stick figure. Martin’s restrained portrayal doesn’t help: His half-asleep, sensitive man-boy character intermittently keeps our interest, but he’s about as engaging as Ohio – especially compared to Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing ex-Marine or even the cliched, emotionally-wounded Vietnam vet, played by the always-great Emile Hirsch.
All of Tiber’s gayness is obviously all hush-hush; his Jewish parents – Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) – haven’t the slightest clue. All they seem to care about, especially his mother, is their drab motel, El Monaco. Later, a touching scene with Elliot’s father turns that notion on its head, and takes a little piece of your heart.
But before the inevitable free-at-last denouement, it’s all trippy high-as-a-kite drug sequences, frenzied set-up scenes (with Lee’s vibrantly engaging split-screen craziness) and over-the-top parental freak-outs as the down-and-out family welcomes Woodstock producers to their White Lake, N.Y. land. One of those festival creators, the laid-back Michael Lang, epitomizes the garden vibe: He’s chill and angelic – he rides away on a white horse, for goodness sakes – and stage actor Jonathan Groff plays him perfectly.
As it’d turn out, Lang brought a helluva lot of people – and bucks – to the N.Y. town, using the 600-acre farm land of Max Yasgur (played impeccably by Eugene Levy). None of the townies expected quite a turnout, and Lee captures the crazy, joyous mess it all was as half a million festival-goers sweep in, and Elliot’s parents patrol them – his broom-armed mother shooing away people banging in the woods; his dad controlling bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This film feels a lot like the stop-and-go of a busy road, because the jaunty narrative is excessively over-plotted, zigzagging between umpteen mini-stories (and gobs of needless ones, like a theater troupe housed in the Tibers’ barn), and sprinkled with forgettable, oversimplified characters (Elliot’s mad-woman mom is a complete caricature). Even the music – where are all the legendary Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix songs? – isn’t memorable.
Unlike all the dope smoke the festival saw, “Woodstock” doesn’t linger. C+