Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding"

"Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" is one of those movies where you genuinely enjoy hanging out with the characters, but the story unfolds with all the surprises of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. As time goes on, you find yourself liking the people you're watching less and less because you know what they're going to do long before they get around to doing it.

For a movie that professes to teach us to get past our insecurities and think more freely, it does so with astonishingly conventional storytelling tropes.

This dramedy is set in the town of Woodstock, which because of the eponymous concert holds mythic status among that portion of the Baby Boom generation that never grew up, and their fresher disciples.

Jane Fonda plays Grace, a sort of queen mother of the hippies, who eschews possessions but owns a magnificent piece of idyllic farm property outside of town. She grows (and smokes) a lot of pot, paints portraits of landscapes both geographical and anatomical, howls at the moon with fellow aging females, protests wars (any will do), bangs drums and pretty much every other stereotype of crunchy Earth Motherhood you can think of.

Her character is actually not the protagonist, but rather the flighty nexus around which other characters and their stories orbit.

Grace's daughter Diane (Catherine Keener), who supposedly was born at Woodstock, has rebelled against her mother's rebellion by becoming a conservative, uptight lawyer who hasn't seen her mother in 20 years. But Diane's own life is crumbling around her, with her husband (Kyle MacLachlan) curtly announcing one day that he wants a divorce.

She decides to trundle up her two teenage kids and head to mother's to ... well, apparently to form the basis of a screenplay. (Certainly no other logic applies. Who, in a time of extreme emotional duress, seeks to pile on more conflict?)

 Jake (Nat Wolff), still in high school, thinks life is a film, and he wants to be the director -- mainly because it allows him to shoot video of everyone instead of interacting with them. (He bristles when people call him a budding Spielberg, preferring to be associated with the more iconoclastic Werner Herzog.) Jake is painfully shy around girls, until he meets the winsome Tara (Marissa O'Donnell) at one of his grandmother's protests.

Zoe is the older child, already a student at Columbia, who has continued the rebellion streak in her family by becoming a vegetarian, peace-loving poetry lover. (In one of the movie's funnier bits, Jake complains that Zoe once had her Barbie dolls hold a war crimes tribunal for his G.I. Joes, and beheaded them.)

Zoe is more like her mother than she'd care to admit, presenting herself as open-minded but really rather dismissive of anyone who doesn't share her views. That includes Cole (Chance Crawford), the cute guy who works in a butcher shop (at least it's organic), smokes tobacco but not marijuana ("I like reality," he explains) and even hunts animals recreationally. Their relationship has a proverbial, almost slapsticky I-hate-you-until-the-moment-I-realize-I-love-you flavor.

Since both kiddies have exchanges of goo-goo eyes with a townie, Diane isn't about to be left out. Her match is Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a songwriter/carpenter who takes her skinny-dipping, beckons her onstage to sing at a concert and tells her she needs to untie the balloon of her spirit from the sandbag of her inhibitions, or something.

(Somehow, I suspect this pitch would seem less dreamy if it were coming from a potbellied guy with rotten teeth instead of a handsomely grizzled Jeffrey Dean Morgan.)

Director Bruce Beresford shot his first short movie in the 1950s, and has made some gems along the way ("Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy"). He has a nice, light touch with his actors, and helps lend a sense that the characters are more fully drawn than they really are.

Screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski, though, have a tendency to build their writing around individual scenes and particular lines of dialogue rather than develop a coherent whole. As a result, the “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” registers as a collection of Important Moments rather than a fully realized story.

2.5 stars out of four

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