Forty years after cavorting with the commies in Vietnam, “Hanoi Jane” reprises her role as an anti-war activist in Bruce Beresford’s “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.”
This time around, however, Jane Fonda’s peacenik is more tired cliche than radical extremist. Her character, Grace, is a half-baked (in multiple senses) hippie who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., where she grows marijuana in her basement and organizes peace rallies in the town square with her fellow aging flower children. She’s a predictable character in a predictable, albeit slightly amusing, story about family conflict, love, and, well, pot.
Catherine Keener plays Grace’s daughter, Diane, a Manhattan lawyer and uptight conservative. (Does Hollywood know any other kind?) Forced to re-examine her life when her husband Mark (Kyle MacLachlan) says he wants a divorce as they’re prepping for a dinner party, Diane flees with her two children — college-aged Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and teenage Jake (Nat Wolff) — to Woodstock and Mom.
Grace is ecstatic to see her estranged daughter and grandchildren, but Diane is less than thrilled to be in this town stuck in 1969, staying with her whacky mother who lets chickens roam free in the kitchen. (It’s never really clear why Diane goes there, either.) Zoe and Jake, of course, adore their grandmother, who encourages them to smoke pot (“Nothing with needles, nothing up the nose,” she tells them) and practice safe but free love. The message to Diane is clear: Roll a joint and find peace and love in Woodstock, and perhaps her problems will be solved.
The family conflict at the heart of the story should, despite the oddities of this particular family, speak to all audiences, but it falls flat. It could be absurdly funny or it could be heartbreakingly real. Yet, it’s neither particularly witty, nor particularly believable. It’s just not plausible that, after one day in Woodstock, Diane would jump into a lake in her underwear with her mother’s handsome friend (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) or leave the kids to smoke with granny while she flirts with him in his pickup truck. After all, as Zoe quips, this is a woman who works for the firm of “Fascist, Fascist and Fascist.” (Leave it to Hollywood to find a right-wing lawyer in Manhattan.)
Despite its cliches, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” has a few endearing moments — and two watchable young stars. Miss Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and newcomer Mr. Wolff (“New Year’s Eve”) shine in their portrayals of complex young adults who grow up a little in Woodstock.
Miss Olsen’s Zoe is at first the predictable, pretentious, vegetarian college student who writes bad poetry, but she grows on viewers when she falls for an unlikely suitor (Chace Crawford) and seems more distressed about the divorce than even her mother. (“I should be too modern or, whatever, to care about something as banal as divorce is, but, I feel really bad about it,” she says tearfully in a sweet scene.) Mr. Wolff, meanwhile, earns the most laughs as the geeky but wise teenager.
“Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding” was intended as a counter-programming chick-flick alternative to this summer’s plethora of aliens and comic book super-heroes. Miss Fonda must have missed the marketing memo, for her Grace is little more than a spacy cartoon character.
Ladies, you’d do far better to stay home and watch an exercise video. The tiresome Miss Fonda would do better to make one.
TITLE: “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding”
CREDITS: Directed by Bruce Beresford. Written by Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski.
RATING: R, for drug use and sexual references
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS