Ang Lee is one of the most nuanced, attentive, and versatile of all working directors. He is capable of molding any material -- be it human drama, kung fu epic, or even comic book adaptation -- to his unique and delicate sensibility. It's strange, then, that Lee's own artistic instincts fail him in Taking Woodstock, which plays like a wooden, straightforward soap opera that is far too well-meaning for its own good. The movie adopts a hippie attitude without the added psychedelic benefit of hippie drugs. Article continues below
The end result of Lee's long-awaited Woodstock movie is not much of a "Woodstock movie" at all but is rather another entry into the "Lost boy finds himself" subgenre. It is a very typical construction, played here with very little edge or originality -- a long-suffering young hero sets out to save something that means something to his kooky family and saves himself in the process. The only difference in this case is that the story is surrounded by the most famous outdoor concert in American history.
Taking Woodstock's lost boy is Elliot (Demetri Martin), a "prodigal son" who has returned to his Jewish cliché parents' home in upstate New York in order to help them maintain their humble home and run-down motel business. Elliot is wrestling with some controversial hidden demons but quickly aims to simultaneously save his parents' home and fit in with the town locals by becoming a straight-laced city councilman. The bank wants to foreclose on the property, a large piece of land once intended to become a commercial paradise but now diminished to a fledgling, broken-down motel surrounded by swampy forest. Elliot means to rescue the property first with political swagger, then humble begging, and finally by an unexpected stroke of business savvy. Elliot offers his family's land as the site for an upcoming three-day concert of "peace and music." The rest, as they say, is... well, you know.
The film's first half works, in spite of some stilted drama and tepid comedy, because it opens up a story heretofore unexplored by movie audiences. The struggle to piece together such a massive concert event and the subsequent feverish lead-up to the opening notes of said concert are intrinsically interesting, and for a while Lee and longtime screenwriter/producing partner James Schamus create an interesting entry point into the story in Martin's Elliot, a do-gooder who has suppressed his true self to put on a concert that celebrates acceptance and individuality. But when the planning ends and the concert begins, Lee's story has nowhere to go, and as a result the film spends its last hour treading water in search of a purposeful destination.
Part of the problem lies in Lee's insistence on not letting us see any of the actual Woodstock performances, save for a few digitally-rendered long shots. Perhaps the filmmaker thought it would be too clichéd to have his protagonist see and participate in the event he helped create. Or maybe he just found it too risky to attempt recreations of legendary concert scenes. Whatever the case, the conscious omission of concert footage feels like an obstacle Lee is daring himself to conquer rather than a purposeful enhancement to the story.
Surely Lee was attempting to focus on the human drama rather than the spectacle -- usually a wise move, but not when the drama is redundantly formulaic, and the spectacle is Woodstock. Surely the man who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain could find more interesting conflict than town locals who hate hippies, couldn't he? It is also somewhat surprising that a filmmaker as adaptable as Lee cannot adapt to comedy. Never does a joke feel organic to the film's story and characters. Everything in the film -- down to the story and characters themselves -- feels forced and unnatural. As a result, the film is a bit of a tonal mess, with lots of sketch-comedy caricatures introduced, only then to be put through the melodramatic wringer. Martin, a fresh, up-and-coming comedian with natural, down-to-earth talent, is able to come away unscathed; the same cannot be said for big-name cameos like Liev Schreiber and Emile Hirsch, try as they might to bring humanity to their bit parts.
Woodstock is a fascinating subject for a serious film, and Ang Lee would be a perfect director for that film. Taking Woodstock, however, is not that film -- it is a limp attempt to stage a story around the most historic concert ever and then treat the concert as a background echo to the predictable melodrama on center stage.