It’s summer in the Catskills, 1969. The air is hot, the weeds are colorful, the lawn ornaments tacky, and the motels plentiful — indicated by a clutch of road signs, promising air conditioning or proximity. Revealed in close-ups that may be tender or may be judgmental, these details introduce the central conceit of Taking Woodstock, that the location of the festival was both utterly unready and perfect for the event, at least as that event is recalled through the usual nostalgic haze.
Ang Lee’s movie offers more of the same. For Elliot (Demetri Martin), about to be a rebel in spite of himself, the season is looking much as it always has: he has, year after year, returned from his apartment in the city to help his parents run a dinky motel called the El Monaco (yes, the name is redundant, and the place charges a dollar extra for towels). One more time, Elliot is pleading their case to the bank manager, asking for just two more months to avoid foreclosure. The manager is round and pale, Elliot, quite sandwiched between Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman), looks at once
Serious about the case he’s making and embarrassed — especially when his mother trots out the story she’s told too many times, about her constant victimization and trauma (she “walked all the way from Minsk” to escape the pogroms, etc.), not-so-passively aggressively manipulating anyone worried about looking anti-Semitic. On the way home, when Elliot whispers to Jake that maybe he can urge her to back off the “Nazi stuff,” dad shakes his head and slunks along the path to motel office: “Do you think I can tell your mother what to do?”
No, no one tells Sonia what to do, which means this Jewish Mother becomes the butt of the movie’s most banal joking, a stereotype that’s tragic, comic, and exasperating. Bossy and self-centered, judgmental and mean, Sonia totters on her support-hosed legs, shaking her finger at guests and peering through her pointy glasses at her husband until he does what she wants done. Not falling far from the tree, Elliot also does what’s expected, again giving up his dream of moving to San Francisco or even pursuing his own ambitions as an artist, in order to clean rooms and paint signs (“Swim at your own risk”). His sketchy background includes a we’re-so-clever exchange with his urbanite sister, adamantly removed from the motel, and a brief phone conversation indicating his gayness, a secret he keeps from his parents until he can’t, at which point Jake is fine with it. And still, Sonia will never know.
As annoying as it is that Sonia exists primarily to give Elliot’s insurgence a focus, she is only one shortcut among many in Taking Woodstock. These include the premise, that, according to the fantasy of the film and much “history,” Woodstock changes everything. Elliot’s part is crucial (the film is inspired by his “true story,” for sale as his memoir, under the name Elliot Tiber). Acting as chairman of the town council, he grants the beatific Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) a permit to hold a music festival, then finds a location as well, Max Yasgur’s (Eugene Levy) farm. Suddenly the town is filled with outsiders, building a stage, setting up sound equipment, and taking all kinds of drugs. Locals are at once horrified and grateful: their businesses are all saved by the money — lots of it, in cash — and yet the “kids” are so vexing strange!
The movie never gets much beyond these clichés: hippies took drugs, rain made mud, the music was great and crowds were huge. Not much in the way of complication or investigation here. Elliot’s encounters with colorful and completely recognizable types structure the summer of love narrative: he finds pleasures with the traumatized Vietnam war veteran Billy (Emile Hirsch) and the theatrical troupe (led by Devon [Dan Fogler]) who live and rehearse in his parents’ barn (and who also rock the pre-party event by stripping naked on stage, horrifying locals). A whole new world is opened to him by sexy trippers in a colorful VW bus (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) and the hairy-chested transvestite ex-marine Vilma (Liev Schreiber), who offers to work security at the motel, not to mention sage advice and observations on cue.
The focus on Elliot’s family proves less insightful or poignant than broadly cartoonish, and his journey is rendered in a too-obvious metaphor: he never makes it to the actual concert, but slogs through mud and flowers and multitudes of most excellent kids, only to come to a new self-understanding.