In Theaters: Taking Woodstock
I doubt Ang Lee approached Taking Woodstock with the same sense of historical timing that the rest of culture exploited this summer, when the music festival's 40th anniversary catapulted it back into a sort of reissued big-money consciousness. The Oscar-winning fimmaker said he simply wanted a break from his "abyss of tragedy," and that Elliot Tiber's memoir about providing Woodstock's operational nexus was the story that would set him free. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but for viewers, it's all the same. Just swap flimsy nostalgia for nihilism, and there you are.
And there Demetri Martin is, too, doing his best as Tiber -- a Manhattan-hopeful graphic designer whose mother's (an extraordinary Imelda Staunton) apron strings always yank him bank to the Catskills and his parents' rundown El Monaco Motel. He's also the head of the local chamber of commerce, an optimistic opportunist who lures the frustrated, moneyed braintrust of Woodstock Ventures to his site when he hears about their permit problems in a neighboring town. Their chieftain, Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), struts from chopper to office to limo, philosophizing about the potential of an event that's homeless until Elliot pledges his aid.
Lee frames the big-city bohemians against the staid Tiber clan with unusual ham-fistedness, reducing the culture-clash overtones to a round of butt-sniffing vaudeville. Such is Taking Woodstock's curse, lunging ahead with archetypes who represent but don't really explain the spirit of the time -- the shell-shocked 'Nam veteran (Emile Hirsch) who delivers the damaged-innocent quotient, the transsexual Marine (Liev Schreiber) who promises security after the Mafia shows up for its cut, the VW van-dwelling hippies (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who invite Elliot on his first acid trip, and others. Taken individually, as with Hirsch's late, moving monologue on the muddy hillside, they're like shiny Hollywood lids holding down more compelling stories than Tiber's own. Taken collectively, they only reinforce Tiber's inferiority as a set of eyes, ears, and not much more.
This isn't really Martin's fault, either. His orderly, tow-headed charm matches Lee's orderly, clear-headed tone; a star isn't born or anything, but Woodstock won't blow it out, either. Staunton, meanwhile, stalks the shabby premises in her knee-highs, housedress and cheapskate abandon -- a Russian Jewish immigrant with a immovable chip on her shoulder and a clear back story that virtually no one else in the film has bothered to match. (Fellow British actor Henry Goodman comes close as her husband Jake.) She's a seething, riveting dervish of ambition, and one of the few things rescuing Taking Woodstock from mediocrity.
Another is its visual permissiveness. It's as adventurous a film as Lee has ever made (Hulk's CGI notwithstanding), utilizing split-screens, zoom lenses, kinetic slides in the mud, astonishingly long DeMillian takes featuring hundreds of stalled cars and a cast of thousands, and that acid-trip aside bringing Tiber to the "center of the universe." Lee's gotten flack for its cheesiness, but technically, anyhow, it's no less authentic an artifact of its era than the in-camera tricks Dennis Hopper tossed around a graveyard in Easy Rider. Too few and far between, those risks pay off; they're the real liberators springing Lee from all those years of bummers. If only he'd taken more. This was the time to do it.