One-sided ‘Woodstock’ not an adventure worth taking

David Hohwald

The 1960s are fertile ground for film in that the decade was a turning point in the history of this nation. Such change is ripe for dramatic interpretation, and there are many true stories from which to derive inspiration.

Unfortunately, with “Taking Woodstock,” director Ang Lee has chosen to take the true story and then cut out all the drama. With almost no narrative structure to speak of and generally weak performances, the result is a bout of nostalgia-induced filmmaking that is most aptly described as a bad trip.

“Taking Woodstock” is a semi-fictional interpretation of Elliot Tiber (changed to Teichberg in the film), a young man responsible for bringing the famed music festival to a farmer’s field in Upstate New York.

Sadly, though, this film is built around the weak performance of comedian-turned-actor Demetri Martin. His stand-up prowess aside, Martin has next to no screen presence. He is bland and forgettable, creating a problem because the movie is centered around his character.

Martin’s main flaw is his line delivery. His inexperience shows in every word he says, making even the most rudimentary of scenes look forced.

There are other performances, though, and “Taking Woodstock” has quite a few big name actors. Emile Hirsch is present, but his talents are put to waste playing a stereotypical soldier home from Vietnam. His performance will give the audience flashbacks of a time when this role was not such a cliché.

Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, is a delight, probably the only above-average performance as cross-dresser Vilma. His gravitas is palpable, which makes all the other actors seem even worse by comparison.

Eugene Levy plays his typical role: nebbish, nice and straight out of “American Pie.”

As for any decent female roles, unfortunately there really are not any. Part of this is due to mediocre performances from Imelda Staunton and Kelli Garner, but mostly this is part of an over-arching problem with the screenplay.

Lee’s film is entirely focused on its protagonist, to the point of preventing the development of other characters in the movie. The result is a movie that, aside from a few laughs here or there, is pretty boring.

Lee does not do James Schamus’ script any favors with his direction or cinematography either. Lee’s chops are well-known, as this is the man who put “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on the silver screen.

It is therefore shocking how shaky “Taking Woodstock’s” cinematic design is. Lee uses an abundance of split-screen shots, similar to documentary footage, but to no great effect. The result is a movie that is almost at war with itself.

Credit has to go to costume and set designers, though. Of all the flaws in this film, period realism is not one of them. From cars to buildings to clothing, the film just gets it right.

While Lee may be over-ambitious in shooting for nostalgia he does not fail because of his design crew, who faced the herculean task of re-creating iconic scenes from American history. But Woodstock was also about music, and Lee uses next to none of it in the movie.

Ultimately “Taking Woodstock” is just too scattered to be a good film. It has its highs, mostly nostalgic moments recreated with great accuracy, but the basis of the movie is a performance by Martin lacking any real skill or power. Add a helter-skelter plot and cinematography that is for the most part just confusing, and the result is a film with more bad than good.

The peaks are high, but “Taking Woodstock” is mostly valley. Those keen on a trip back to the 1960s would be better suited waiting for the DVD, or better yet, just renting a documentary about the event.