Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lust, Caution, The Ice Storm) has crafted some moving films over the years. He’s also responsible for a few which have missed the mark (Hulk, Ride With the Devil). Sadly, his latest is the later. In terms of recreating the scope and magnitude of Woodstock, the film succeeds, but in almost every other way it fails to impress.
In Taking Woodstock, Lee takes on a subject which has been done to death in film and television over the years. Not surprisingly, the director finds it hard to bring anything new to the table.
The story centers around the creation of the event and how it transforms a small community into the lovefest for the ages. The Daily Show alum Demetri Martin stars as the bright skittish young man (was this role originally pitched to Michael Cera?) who uses the event to help save his parent’s failing hotel by finagling a deal with the organizers of the event to hold it on the farmland of a neighbor (Eugene Levy).
If the movie has one major failing, it’s a lack of understanding as to what story it wants to tell and who it wants to tell it to. Those looking for a Woodstock movie are in for disappointment. The event itself and the music are barely footnotes. It’s odd that Ang Lee would be responsible for such a directionless film. Although the performances across the board are pretty good, nothing can save the film as it meanders its way through events, somewhat lost – just like the film’s main character.
There is a ton of good acting talent wasted in this movie. Imelda Staunton is nothing more than the prototypical bossy mother. Liev Schreiber is wasted in the role of a transvestite who befriends Elliot (Martin) and his father for no reason except the script tells him (her?) to. Emile Hirsch is wasted as the cliched troubled Vietnam vet. Even Levy is wasted as the kindly neighbor who immediately turns profiteer when the opportunity presents itself, and then becomes the kindly neighbor again. Are you sensing a pattern here?
The film’s coverage of drug use is also a problem. In one scene Vilma (Schreiber) jokes about giving Elliot’s parents hash brownies. Thankfully, Elliot puts an end to the zaniness immediately and we think we’re saved from the obligatory parents-on-drugs-scene. Sadly, no. Only minutes later we get Elliot bonding with his trippy whacked-out parents in a scene not far removed from that in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I just compared Ang Lee to Michael Bay… yeah, this movie is that disappointing. The only other “drug” moment is also your stereotypical acid trip which only Elliot fails to see coming.
I’m still not sure what the point of the film is. I’m only sure what it is not. It’s not a look at how the event changed Elliot or his family (it doesn’t, except superficially), it’s not a film about how the event changed the town or the country (that isn’t addressed), and it’s not a film about the transforming or lasting impact of the event itself (which is barely glimpsed).
From a director who has given us films built on strong stories and engaging characters, Taking Woodstock can be seen as nothing more or less than a mistake. In many ways it doesn’t even feel like an Ang Lee film (except his careful, almost loving, presentation of gay characters).