One day this past weekend, my family went to a restaurant whose interior could well have been the design brainchild of the Grateful Dead, coming off their most powerful ’shrooms, and Stevie Nicks, OD-ing on faded velvets. Tye dye and peace signs were abundant, and I wondered, “Who still gets into all this hippie stuff?” The next day, I was sent to review Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which takes place in Woodstock and is peopled not so much with characters as tie dye, peace signs, oh, and lots of protest signs, pot smoking and crystal-healing sessions. I asked myself again, “Who still gets into all this hippie stuff?”
Apparently, writers Christine Mengert and Joseph Musynski, whose script leaves no room for any compassion for those who eschew the free love, no-rules lifestyle espoused by lead character Grace (Jane Fonda). At the movie’s beginning, Grace’s daughter Diane (Catherine Keener), dumped by husband Mark (Kyle McLachlan, with about two minutes’ screen time), drags her sullen teenagers, Zoë (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolff) to grandma’s ramshackle house in Woodstock. It’s a panic move, clearly, as Diane has been estranged from Grace for decades—probably since having her mother arrested for selling pot at her wedding. Before the car is unpacked, you know that Grace, with her loosy-goosy ways and continual open house, will lead the young ’uns to truths like, one, pot smoking in moderation is a good thing, and, two, having sex with your mother’s ex-lover is OK. Really.
There’s a fun movie in here somewhere; the problem is, it just can’t seem to find its way out of exceedingly cloying dialogue. Each line serves as a bald declaration of just how culturally savvy and politically sensitive all involved are. Characters are defined not so much by their behaviors and their values, but by whether or not they “get” Whitman or know who Herzog is. For PC-indoctrinated Zoë, who is very young, that seems recognizable, but for everybody else, it’s just so much self-aggrandizement. When Diane’s potential suitor Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a furniture maker who also writes songs, puts her on the spot in front of the entire town—demanding that she sing on stage—her understandable shock and dismay is meant to be another sign of her uptightness. Again, really?
Director Bruce Beresford seems to have taken the job solely to highlight the seemingly ageless Fonda, for whom the movie seems like her very own On Golden Pond, without the benefit of Katharine Hepburn’s gritty realism. (One wonders what Hepburn’s OGP character would have said to Grace and her female compadres, howling and baying at the goddess moon.) Fonda looks like a dangerous cross between Steven Tyler and Cher, and she’s constantly cooing pseudo-wise utterances which in fact sound like bathroom-stall poetry at the local natural-foods emporium. At times, I had to fight the urge to throw my bag at the screen, which would have been an ironic statement, seeing as it held my weekend Wall Street Journal. I’d watch Keener in just about anything, Wolff is sweetly screwy, and Olsen makes me want to hang on her every facial expression, let alone word, but these attributes alone or combined are not enough to save Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.