Friday, June 8, 2012

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Upstate, And Swimming Downstream In The New 1960s

Three generations: Elizabeth Olsen, Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener in Bruce Beresford's comedy "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding". 
IFC Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, June 8, 2012

"Peace, Love & Misunderstanding", a sunny, bright and colorful comedy directed by Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") is also rather ordinary, predictable and static despite occasional bursts of hilarity.  Had it not been for Jane Fonda's addictive and addicting resplendent earth mama from Woodstock circa 1969, "Peace, Love" would instead have been "Please, Leave" the theater.  The film opened today in select U.S. cities.

As it is, "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" explores how a family internalizes or externalizes the effect of its fractures.  In a dour, darkened opening scene around a dinner table at a New York City restaurant among a group of friends sit Diane (Catherine Keener) and Mark (Kyle MacLachlan).  We already know that Mark (whose occupation isn't necessarily clear) has asked Diane, his conservative corporate attorney wife, for a divorce for unknown reasons.  At the dinner they couldn't be more isolated from each other.  Their teenage children Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolff) have a summer to sit with the painful information they will later learn, and a wordless drive upstate to Woodstock puts them in touch with Diane's estranged mother Grace (Ms. Fonda).

Hippie Grace (think Grace Slick of rock band Jefferson Airplane?) organizes peace rallies and is the vibrant life of Woodstock.  Well known and admired, Grace regales anyone who will listen with her stories of Woodstock '69 and philosophies about peace, justice, love and drugs -- Grace has plenty of each of these to give.  Her two grandchildren instantly adapt and set off on coming-of-age adventures.  One is a believer in the sanctity of animal life, the other a budding filmmaker.  The characters they meet are just waiting to be hugged, loved and kissed, and the film is replete with stock characters you're familiar with.  At best "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" is an entertaining, modest work that showcases the gregarious Grace in an all-world turn by Ms. Fonda; at worst it's a pleasant film amused by its own charm, delight and fun.

Mr. Beresford's film marks the big screen debut of Elizabeth Olsen.  ("Martha Marcy May Marlene", filmed after "Peace, Love", was released last year.)  Ms. Olsen shows genuine curiosity and intelligence in the characters she inhabits and you see her radiate the results on screen.  Her eyes are always inquiring, her expressions and physical language searching for something deeper.  An example of this is in a scene  where Zoe is in a pick-up truck.  An incident occurs.  You observe the silence Ms. Olsen allows and what she does with it to convey her sentiments.  It's adroitly rendered, occupying beats that stretch the scene in question making it more meaningful than some seasoned actors might.  While her role as Zoe is largely functional there's a confidence and attitude about her acting here and in "Martha Marcy" and this year's "Silent House" that is arresting.  (Ms. Olsen will also be seen in "Liberal Arts" and "Red Lights" this year and Spike Lee's remake "Oldboy" in 2013.)

Additionally, in a nice touch, is an actress you will recognize in a small, perhaps insignificant role.  I thoroughly enjoyed her few minutes of time in "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" and was pleased she elected to be nondescript.  Few actors these days choose to go that route perhaps for money, the sake of vanity, ego and other motivations of narcissism but the casual, unaffected way her character adds a line or a smile or other expression that enhances a shot or a scene, makes Mr. Beresford's film a nicer place in which to spend some escapist time.  Granted, some shots or scenes aren't needed, including the opening one -- yet that staid, imperial-looking New York City skyline in silhouette establishes the sense of soullessness and impersonal attitude Diane embodies.

The always reliably great and perceptive Ms. Keener, who plays the role of anguished mother, wife and child well here, brings the same earthy foundation to her work that Ms. Fonda does, except to serve Diane's provincial strictures.  For all her assuredness and sense of order Diane still looks for her true compass in life.  She fights against dropping her sword and grabbing a plowshare but there's something in the Woodstock air she hasn't dared to breathe in 20 years that penetrates her senses so irresistibly.  (In "Please Give" (2010) Ms. Keener enjoyed a similar role of New York City mother -in-crisis after familial difficulty.  Here, Diane needn't suspect misbehavior.  She knows the score from the start.)  Diane, like the film itself, navigates through tangled mother-daughter relationships without somehow going completely off-the-rails crazy.  At times Diane has to mother Grace, in good acting moments by Ms. Keener and Ms. Fonda.

Despite Ms. Fonda's highly enjoyable physical performance, one of her best in many years, the seductive, charismatic Grace is cardboard material, an inelastic type who doesn't get to go very far depth-wise as a character; rather her ideas travel and are planted into her grandkids.  (By contrast: I think back to "Georgia Rule" of a few years ago and cringe at how harsh, self-serious and grating it and the characters were, including the righteous one Ms. Fonda played.)  Grace is rigid in one sense -- rigidly committed to love and peace.  In directing her Mr. Beresford clearly trades on Ms. Fonda's heyday activist years as much as the actress herself does.  Ms. Fonda revels spectacularly in nostalgia, though in a far less abrasive and polarizing way than in the then-immediate events she participated in in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Her charm and wit prevents Grace from overstaying her welcome, but only barely.

With all the good feeling engendered by "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" any melodrama surrounding the love fest sprinkling the audience's heart throughout is an afterthought, impacting little on the overall message and inescapably gentle spirit of the film.  After all, what's a little arguing up against the big L word? ( The bickering doesn't stand a chance, anyway.)  A coda of sorts effectively if redundantly sums up all that has transpired in film's previous hour-plus, and better than the film itself.

Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert, "Peace, Love & Understanding", full of aphorisms, is one all its own, a film that stands firmly on the ground of its missive: to get audiences to indulge their own sense of realization in the idea that frolicking merrily in the imperfections of family and grasping the positive things that emerge from its flaws is a gratifying, even liberating experience.  The rigid Diane ("it's not Diana") learns this foremost, and you know what will happen when Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a neighborhood musician is introduced to her.

With: Chace Crawford
, Katharine McPhee, Poorna Jagannathan, Maddie Corman.

"Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for drug references and sexual content.  The film's running time is one hour and 36 minutes. 

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