Directed by: Bruce Beresford (Mao's Last Dancer)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chace Crawford, Kyle MacLachlan
Yep, Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding is about as surprising in its plot as a trip to McDonald’s, but that doesn’t keep it from being pretty satisfying on the cinematic comfort-food level. Nor does it do anything to take away from the very congenial performances of its cast. (And what a treat to see that Elizabeth Olsen can play something other than headcases!) But the biggest thing that no amount of precictability can do is take away from the film’s atmosphere. Remember the best summer day of your childhood? Beresford has put something very like it onscreen here. For that alone, I’m indebted to the film. All it lacked for me was a June bug on a thread and lightning bugs in a jar.
Here’s the pitch: Upon learning that husband Mark (Kyle MacLachlan) wants a divorce, tight-assed lawyer Diane (Catherine Keener) packs up the kids for a trip to see her estranged mother, Grace (Jane Fonda), in Woodstock, N.Y. Mother and daughter haven’t spoken in 20 years. In fact, Diane once had Grace arrested for selling pot at her wedding reception. What ensues is culture shock for the kids, Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolf), and a tussle of wills between Diane and Grace. There’s also a hunky furniture maker, Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), on hand, and a couple of suitable romantic interests—Cole (Chace Crawford) and Tara (Marissa O’Donnell)—for the kids. If you can’t figure out how this will play out, I can only assume you haven’t been to the movies much since, say, 1912.
This is a case where the familiarity of it all is more than compensated for by both the performances and the good-hearted manner in which it’s all presented. It is, after all, possible to turn the ordinary into something very pleasant when handled with care and a degree of obvious love. That’s the case here. The film doesn’t come up with anything extraordinary or depart from its basic formula, but there isn’t the least indication that it ever had any such agenda.
The hook here, of course, is seeing Jane Fonda as exactly what the world thinks she is: an aging hippie. Nevermind, as Fonda has herself pointed out, that she never was a hippie and was in France during Woodstock, it’s still the perception of her. It’s this perception that the film plays with—and generally in a successful manner—and occasionally allows it to undercut itself. Every so often, Fonda says something not quite in character (certainly not in era) as if to slyly wink at the audience that this is make believe.
What makes it work—more than the basic idea of Fonda as a hippie—is the easy rapport Fonda manages to achieve with the rest of the cast—even those who are at odds with her. It’s nice to think that if Jane Fonda was an old hippie living on a small farm and growing marijuana in her basement, this is how she’d be. Hey, sometimes the legend is a lot more fun than the reality. Whatever the case, this is probably the first real break the movies have given her since she came out of retirement. Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding may rest on her shoulders, but with this cast she’s not doing all the lifting, and it helps.
Should you see it? Oh, that depends. It’s not a brilliant commentary on the Woodstock generation. More than anything, it romanticizes the whole idea, but that’s the kind of movie it is. I enjoyed it, and I hadn’t expected to. I found it sweet-tempered and pleasant with an appealing atmosphere. Sometimes that’s enough to put a movie over. Rated R for drug content and some sexual references.