- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

Woodstock, as the 40th-anniversary tributes this month reminded us, was one of those seminal events many people only wish they could have witnessed.

What was it like, we wonder, to be there? To listen to some of the greatest musicians of rock’s greatest era in their prime? To watch half a million people expected to riot instead make manifest their belief in peace and love?

“Taking Woodstock” certainly doesn’t answer those questions. Ang Lee’s latest film takes one exciting and quite cinematic weekend and turns it into a two-hour snoozefest.

One problem is that, despite the title, you hardly see anything of Woodstock.

The film is based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber (known in the film by his real last name of Teichberg), who gave the music festival a home by offering it the permit he already had — he was organizing a chamber-music festival. The townsfolk prove about as amenable to being taken over by a bunch of hippies as those in another upstate New York town that already had thrown them out. They now have that permit and momentum on their side — Elliot’s parents own a motel that becomes the headquarters for the big event.

Woodstock, though, is just a sideshow for Elliot’s coming-of-age story. The young man (played by comedian Demetri Martin) has left a budding interior-design career in the Village to help his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) save their business — which is why those free-love hippies seem like such a godsend. Elliot also envies their ease with who they are; he can’t tell his parents he’s gay.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea to make a film about Woodstock without Woodstock — this one makes poor use of the music of the time and even less of the music of the legendary festival. But the story it does tell should be just as interesting. This one isn’t. It’s simply a collection of cliches. Elliot’s struggles to become his own man aren’t new; neither is the story of a young man (Emile Hirsch) who has come home from Vietnam irreparably damaged psychologically.

Incredibly, “Taking Woodstock” is being marketed as a comedy. There are a few lame jokes, mostly involving Elliot’s parents — you know they’re going to eat those hash brownies at some point. But the only time the film feels alive is when Liev Schreiber is on the screen. He’s fabulous as an ex-Marine transvestite with a rich, smooth voice who comes aboard to handle the motel’s security.

The rest of the talent is wasted, especially Jeffrey Dean Morgan as one of those conservative townsmen and Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, the man who rented his farm to the festival. Virtual unknown Jonathan Groff is a very good Michael Lang, Woodstock’s driving force.

This film might prove to be the most disappointing of the year. Mr. Lee and his writing partner, James Schamus, have made truly great films, from 1994’s touching “Eat Drink Man Woman” to 2007’s masterful “Lust, Caution.” Perhaps they were simply out of their element here. “Taking Woodstock” simply doesn’t capture the spirit of a very spirited time.

TITLE: “Taking Woodstock”

RATING: R (graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus based on the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE: takingwoodstockthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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