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Cannes 2009: “Taking Woodstock.”

Cannes 2009: "Taking Woodstock." (photo)

Some many questions for such a straightforward comedy! Why would the apparently grown-up Elliot spend himself broke supporting his parents' run-down Catskills resort in the first place? Why is his mother so crazy? What's up with the money hoarding? Where did the mafia end up? Did the town actually manage to do anything to fight the concert's arrival? "Taking Woodstock," which was directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay written by James Schamus, is based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber, which explains some of this messiness -- real life rarely includes conveniently tied-up narrative ends. But when part of such a middling, conventional overall package, those hanging plot threads just look more like mistakes. Elliot, played ably but unexceptionally in the film by comedian Demetri Martin, was instrumental in bringing Woodstock to the town of Bethel, NY when it was kicked out of Wallkill. He happened to hold a...

Some many questions for such a straightforward comedy! Why would the apparently grown-up Elliot spend himself broke supporting his parents’ run-down Catskills resort in the first place? Why is his mother so crazy? What’s up with the money hoarding? Where did the mafia end up? Did the town actually manage to do anything to fight the concert’s arrival? “Taking Woodstock,” which was directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay written by James Schamus, is based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber, which explains some of this messiness — real life rarely includes conveniently tied-up narrative ends. But when part of such a middling, conventional overall package, those hanging plot threads just look more like mistakes. Elliot, played ably but unexceptionally in the film by comedian Demetri Martin, was instrumental in bringing Woodstock to the town of Bethel, NY when it was kicked out of Wallkill. He happened to hold a festival permit for his annual attempt at an arts fair, and the struggling hotel owned by his parents needed the business the concert would bring.

“Taking Woodstock” is halfway a melancholy and incomplete-feeling family drama — Imelda Staunton plays Elliot’s miserablist harpy of a mother and Henry Goodman his depressive father. Elliot martyrs himself, giving up what one would think was a happier life as an interior decorator in New York to move home and help his folks, though he doesn’t seem to like them very much. He’s not a hippie, but they need the money, and so he approaches Woodstock Ventures to offer up his family’s property, and, when that seems insufficient, leads them to a local dairy farmer named Max Yasgur (played by Eugene Levy). The rest is history, or more accurately, legend — “Taking Woodstock”‘s glasses are beyond rose-colored. Everything attached to the festival is magical: festival co-creator Michael Lang is magically zen, a random hippie couple provides a magical acid trip, Liev Schreiber arrives as a magical transvestite who feeds Elliot’s parents brownies that have their own magical qualities. And Elliot learns to love his own damn magical self, in the end striking out on his own. The latter fraction of the film, for all its endless era cliches, or because it hits so many of them, is thoughtlessly pleasing to watch. Woodstock — the idea of it that now lives in our common memory as assembled from footage and films and songs and accounts — exudes its own gravitational force, and it’s undemanding to imagine that in temporarily bringing together half a million people for all that peace and music, it helped one gay Jewish 30-something man rediscover joy and life. Yup, totally undemanding.

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