Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Kelli Garner, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy
James Schamus (Book by Elliot Tiber)
In Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," Elliot (Demetri Martin) is a young man who helps a group of festival organizers find a place to hold their festival after their previous plans fall apart. The festival, Woodstock, becomes a piece of music history.
Rather than focusing on the festival itself, which has been done to death over the years, Lee's film is based upon the novel by Elliot Tiber, the son of Russian immigrants who is called home by his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) to help save the family farm. When Elliot hears about the dilemma of the festival's organizers, he contacts producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and offers the family farm as a home base while introducing them to Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), whose enormous farm would eventually hold Woodstock.
As Elliot, Demetri Martin has to be the blandest, least interesting young Russian, hippie-era, free-spirited, semi-closeted gay man on the books. Either that or Martin simply is miscast here and, sadly, is asked to carry much of the film as the central storyline. Of course, his parents don't fare much better, particularly a woefully over-the-top Staunton, whose downtrodden mother is just plain irritating. There's no denying that Staunton can act, but she misses the mark here.
While Martin can't quite anchor the film, Lee does manages to get a few strong performances from his supporting players, most notably a refreshingly spot-on performance from Eugene Levy as farmer Max Yasgur and a delightful Kelli Garner and Paul Dano as an acid-trippin' couple who open up Elliot's eyes and have a groovy time along the way. Liev Schreiber, who has proven time and again perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to get a decent performance, is absolutely revelatory as a cross-dressing security guard.
Admittedly, Ang Lee has always seemed to me a tad overrated. His Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain," for example, seemed more critically praised for its thematic courage than its true filmmaking prowess. Lee's a stylish director, and too often the style has been chosen over substance. The same happens here, as time and again Lee chooses stylish, sweeping photography over anything resembling an involving storyline.
As one can expect from a Lee film, however, "Taking Woodstock" is visually arresting and at least appears historically accurate, if not particularly involving.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic