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Ang Lee and James Schamus like their hippie culture, and love themselves that August 1969 summer of Woodstock, and also the act of trying to capture it on film as it was to be there, on the outside and suddenly coming into the fold of looking in. One can feel the love for the period, the people, the music, the drugs, the whole scene, man. If it doesn't make for the greatest movie it might just be cause Lee has decided to make a precisely light-hearted affair with some fun moments but nothing really hard-hitting with its coming-of-age story. It's a been-there-done-that affair in terms of the major characters, and its more significant background subject provides more of the color and excitement in its two-hour run time.
It's basically about the people behind the scenes at Woodstock (we never see anyone famous, aside from certain semi-figures like Michael Lang and Max Yasgur, portrayed by actors), specifically the young guy Eliot who got together the Woodstock-financial people to his small town as part of Bethel, New York, and helped also to give (politely putting it) a boost to his parents' motel business. We see some of the ups and downs, the downs being things like gangsters trying to muscle their way into the earnings of the thousands of people flocking upstate to frequent the motel (and the up of getting 'security' with transvestite Liev Schreiber in an awesome performance), or just with Elliot's parents and how their attitudes stay mostly the same- what's with these damn kids and their hair and sex and drugs anyway- until towards the end of the three days of peace/love/music.
It's a funny movie for at least a good amount of its run-time. The writer Schamus knows how to milk some laughs out of small-town fears and those scenes of freak-outs that shake up the quiet veneer of rural upstate New York. One good example of this are the folks in the 'theater troupe' who live in Elliot's barn and who remind one of the mime troupe from Easy Rider (lots of naked reenactments of Chekhov). And I even liked how Martin navigates himself in scenes where he has to act perplexed but not show it too much like, "oh, hey, lots of hippies, OK, got to get back to work, whoa!" When it comes time for the more dramatically demanding scenes from Martin (a relatively inexperienced actor and mostly comedian by the way) he falls flat, or looks wonky when tripping his ass off with Paul Dano - a weird but affecting scene, by the way.
Lee decided, more or less, to just take it easy this time around. After the heavy head-trips of Hulk, Brokeback Mountain and Lust Caution, the guy needed to have a laugh, and what better way than to have some good times and breezy moments in reflecting on the one time hippies didn't get stomped down by cops or just wear lots of flowers in their hair. And when its airy and fun it works. When it tries to add some complexity (i.e. a gay innuendo moment is put out there and then never really mentioned again much to my dismay) and starts to get a little preachy towards the last quarter with Elliot having to come to terms with his life and working at his parent's motel (and discovering a dark secret about his rambunctious, irascible old Russian-Jewish mother played respectably by Imelda Staunton) it falls flat on its face. But its worth watching for those little moments - like when Elliot rides on the back of the motorcycle cop through the dense traffic of the road to the Woodstock concert. It's like the good-natured version of the traffic jam from Godard's Week End: less a-holes and more hippies.
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