Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock (Focus Features) is a mild-mannered coming-of-age piece that feels like a young director's debut film, not something we'd expect from the man who's already given us The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and the (I thought) underrated spy romance Lust, Caution. If Taking Woodstock were Lee's first effort, there'd be reason to get excited about the director's nascent career. The movie has its share of quiet pleasures, including a funny and tender lead performance from Demetri Martin, the standup comic and former Daily Show"youth correspondent" who's previously struck me as something of a null quantity. But even as a mind-clearing break from Lee's darker, more ambitious work, Taking Woodstock is an underachieving movie, so slight and gentle-spirited that it seems to be looking at the summer of 1969 through a scrim of rosy gauze.
Martin is Elliot Teichberg, the son of an elderly Jewish couple (played by two British actors, Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) who run the El Monaco, a shabby Catskills motel that's facing foreclosure. (The real Teichberg, under the pen name Elliot Tiber, wrote a book chronicling his role in the staging of the 1969 music festival.) Elliot is longing to break free from his parents' orbit—he's just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to make it as a painter and designer in New York City—but as a dutiful son, he feels compelled to sort out their financial problems first. When he hears that a neighboring town has refused some concert organizers a permit to perform there, Elliot convinces a nearby dairy farmer, Max Yasgur (the ever-endearing Eugene Levy), to host the show on his land. In exchange for Elliot's help, one of the chief concert promoters, an unsettlingly mellow hippie played by Jonathan Groff, promises him that the El Monaco will become the center of operations for Woodstock management.
Though the resulting chaos—helicopters full of music executives landing on the lawn, counterculture kooks hanging from the rafters—turns their lives upside down, the rapid influx of cash solves the Teichbergs' financial woes in a hurry. And the tightly wound Elliot surprises himself by hiring a burly drag queen (Liev Schreiber) as a security guard and openly flirting with a hunky construction worker.
Taking Woodstock, scripted by Lee's longtime collaborator James Schamus, takes meticulous care to establish a cast of characters and a sense of place, then throws away nearly every opportunity to do something with them. Lee, who staged mainstream cinema's most famous (and hottest) man-on-man kiss in Brokeback Mountain, chooses to frame Elliot's first gay kiss from an angle that obscures both participants' faces, muting what could have been the film's most liberatory moment. Elliot's discovery of his own gayness and his father's eventual acceptance of same are elided too quickly, especially given how momentous both would have been in 1969. And Imelda Staunton, so unforgettable as the stolidly fearless abortionist in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, gives a one-note performance in the one-note role of Elliot's pathologically tightfisted mother.
After the long middle section building up to the actual Woodstock, the movie's treatment of the event is maddeningly indirect. No one's asking for a song-by-song re-enactment of the concert, but Lee's refusal to focus even for a moment on the musical aspect of the festival starts to feel almost perverse, as if he's deliberately frustrating the audience's desire. By moments, you'll hear Janis Joplin's voice or Jerry Garcia's guitar drifting faintly over the cow pastures, but Elliot's experience of the festival, though transformative, takes place at a considerable remove from the events onstage. *
Late in the movie, Elliot does venture near the concert grounds, where he spends a day tripping on acid in the DayGlo-painted VW bus of a beatific hippie couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner). On-screen LSD trips haven't progressed much since the Roger Corman days (except that digital animation effects have replaced the kaleidoscope imagery). While I'm glad for Elliot Teichberg that his mind and ass were freed by experiencing the Woodstock concert at a vague remove, I can't say Taking Woodstock did the same for me.
Slate V: The critics on Taking Woodstock and other new releases
Correction, Aug. 28, 2009: The sentence originally misspelled the name of the singer Janis Joplin. (Return to the corrected sentence.)