Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on Ang Lee's Slightly-Off-Center 'Taking Woodstock'

Ang Lee directs the story of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), the young man who helped make the generation-defining Woodstock music festival a reality. Video by Focus Features
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

From director Ang Lee's early movies set amid cultural dislocation ("Eat Drink Man Woman") to such forgettable bagatelles as "The Hulk," the filmmaker has woven a singular, if uneven, tapestry of the American psyche. His cardinal theme is the drama of the hidden identity, a leitmotif singularly suited to his adopted home (he was born in Taiwan and has lived here for three decades). This is a country, after all, where the ethos of continual self-expression and reinvention manages to coexist, however fractiously, with equally strong impulses toward conformity and control.

It's a tension that has animated most all of Lee's films that are set in this country, many of them studies in the genres that have defined American cinema. Whether it's "The Ice Storm," which refracted 1970s-era suburban angst through the lens of the traditional suburban melodrama, or "Brokeback Mountain," which combined florid romance with the landscapes and mannerisms of the old-school western, Lee could be counted on to use the cinematic conventions to reconcile taboo drives and thwarted desires with the dominant traditions and societal mores outside their shadows.

"Taking Woodstock," a wistful, unsteady coming-of-age comedy set during the 1969 three-day music festival, revisits Lee's signature themes and, as in so many of his movies, they're expressed through the journey of a gay man grappling with his sexuality. As the movie opens, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is living with his elderly parents at their run-down Catskills El Monaco Motel, which is on the brink of being taken over by the bank. A quiet, dutiful son who has left his design business in Greenwich Village to help his parents, Elliot suffers the frequent tirades of his paranoid, chronically enraged mother, Sonia (Imelda Staunton), and the confounding passivity of his father, Jake (Henry Goodman), all the while cooking up ways to make something of their decrepit, isolated fleabag.

When Elliot hears that a three-day music and arts festival has had its permit denied by a nearby town, he contacts the promoter, Michael Lang -- played in one of the film's finest performances by Broadway star Jonathan Groff -- and invites him to check out his family's motel, and the nearby town of Bethel. (Elliot, who sees an economic future in the arts, already holds a permit for a music festival, albeit one he envisioned along the lines of chamber music and string quartets.) When Lang and his retinue arrive, Elliot introduces them to a bespectacled, mild-mannered dairy farmer named Max Yasgur (a terrific Eugene Levy), whose verdant 600-acre property Lang deems ideal for his event. After cutting a deal over milk and cookies, it's decided. By mid-August, half a million young people would be making the pilgrimage to Yasgur's Farm that would become the totemic event of a generation.

Lee makes a series of fascinating choices in "Taking Woodstock," starting with the decision not to film Woodstock, the concert. The movie is based on Elliot's memoir (he later changed his last name to Tiber), which chronicled the role he and the El Monaco played in getting the festival off the ground. In choosing Elliot as his protagonist, Lee makes the odd, even subversive decision to take his eye off the center of the action. Unlike Lang, an idealist, hustler and colorful epitome of the 1960s youthquake, Elliot is a more marginal and less obviously symbolic figure. Like the wonderful 1999 drama "A Walk on the Moon," "Taking Woodstock" is about a square who finds himself swept up in the cultural and social vortex swirling outside his window.

This oblique approach will infuriate viewers longing for a more on-the-nose depiction of Woodstock, but it makes sense for Lee, who like most people on the planet in 1969 saw Woodstock as a distant if beguiling cultural blip. The advantages are aesthetic as well, chief among them the absence in "Taking Woodstock" of the wince-inducing re-enactments in which actors lip-synch "With a Little Help From My Friends" or pretend to smash a guitar against an amplifier. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus are confident that most filmgoers will have already seen Michael Wadleigh's definitive 1970 documentary, "Woodstock," and will come to their movie with its indelible images and split-screen editing style firmly secured in their collective memory.

Lee pays due homage to "Woodstock" with his own split-screen moments, and he even re-creates some of the documentary's iconic scenes. But in his hands, they become vehicles for personal breakthroughs that are often surprisingly touching. One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Elliot, his dad and a transvestite ex-Marine named Vilma (played in a lovely, understated performance by Liev Schreiber) go down to a river to observe the skinny-dippers and the faint strains of Richie Havens singing "Freedom" waft over the water. Later, after Elliot decides to see the concert for himself, he and an old friend, a troubled Vietnam War veteran named Billy (Emile Hirsch), take part in the mud slide that was so famously captured in Wadleigh's film. What would otherwise be a rote, purely atmospheric sequence instead becomes a vehicle for one man rediscovering his past, while another finally faces his future.

Other moments don't work so well, often because the characters themselves are little more than caricatures. Hirsch's Billy is a regrettably familiar stock figure, made up of bits and pieces from interchangeable shaggy, traumatized Nam vets portrayed in so many movies about the era. And by far the film's most problematic character is Staunton's Sonia: A haunted, miserable Russian emigre who is obsessed with money, she takes the stereotype of the Jewish mother to a monstrous extreme.

As for Elliot himself, he remains something of a cipher throughout "Taking Woodstock," with Martin -- known from such television programs as "The Daily Show" and "Important Things With Demetri Martin" -- rarely deviating from his signature deadpan monotone. It's a blankness, reminiscent of Buster Keaton's impassive Everyman, that can be deployed for comic effect (a mishandled press conference is particularly funny) as often as it falls flat.

"Taking Woodstock" is a choppy and occasionally unsure film, one that doesn't achieve the superb tonal control of "The Ice Storm," but that certainly doesn't represent an unqualified disaster on a par with Lee's first attempt at the western, "Ride With the Devil." If you stick with this wistful, fitfully funny little trip, you will be rewarded with a movie that makes up in warmth, humanism and self-effacing modesty what it lacks in crackerjack pacing and epic pop-historical grandeur. The movie's emotional high point is when Elliot, riding on the back of a policeman's motorcycle, takes a meandering trip through a serpentine throng of people making their way to Yasgur's pasture.

It's a gorgeous sequence, shot in an unbroken take, that manages to instill a sense of spontaneity and wonder in an event that has been otherwise ambered in its own myth. It's somehow fitting that Lee should fill out his American cycle with a film that injects Woodstock with a sense of off-center whimsy and intimacy. In de-monumentalizing an event so laden with epochal meaning, he's managed to make a movie that, for all its sweetness, is surprisingly subversive.

Taking Woodstock (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and profanity.

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