Jane Fonda spoofs her own Vietnam-era radical persona, plays a hippie flower child turned aging earth mother in Bruce Beresford’s “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” a totally synthetic domestic comedy-drama that plays like a Hallmark Hall of Fame special erroneously transplanted to the big screen. The innocuous but vacuous picture may play well to women enjoying a ladies’ night out, but it’s sentimental hokum, pure and simple.
Fonda plays Grace, a still-blooming relic of the Woodstock generation who lives in the town outside which the famous concert took place more than four decades ago, acting as sort of unofficial den mother for the local folk still dedicated to its ideals (including the joys of pot). She hasn’t seen her uptight daughter Diane (Catherine Keener), a Manhattan lawyer, for twenty years; the girl had her arrested when she tried to sell weed at Diane’s wedding, and they haven’t spoken since.
Now, however, Diane is faced with a sudden request for a divorce from her priggish husband (Kyle MacLachlan), whom we’re told is a jerk in a dinner-party scene marked by some of the dopiest, pseudo-sophisticated conversation on modern theatre you’ll ever hear. Distraught, she abruptly decides to take the kids—Columbia freshman Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and her younger brother Jake (Nat Wolff), an aspiring filmmaker with camera always at the ready—for a visit to her mom. Though they arrive unexpectedly, Grace isn’t surprised by their appearance, having had a “prophetic dream” that they’d come. They all settle down in the ramshackle house where chickens have the run of the place and there’s a “growing room” in the basement, where Grace’s pals pop in for impromptu all-night parties, and where a gaggle of women from the town periodically assemble for outdoor rituals in honor of the Moon.
Some of the sequences in the movie are meant to be teary and heartfelt, as when Grace and Diane argue over past wrongs and gradually reconcile; others are meant to be slightly naughty, as when Grace introduces the kids to the joys of her agricultural produce. But the greater portion of the picture is devoted to the romances that Grace encourages for each of her visitors. For Diane, there’s the ingratiating carpenter Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who plays a mean guitar and takes her skinny-dipping in the local pond. For vegetarian Zoe, it’s scruffily handsome Cole (Chace Crawford), an easygoing local butcher with a sensitive streak. And for geeky Werner Herzog-wannabe Jake, there’s coffeehouse waitress Tara (Marissa O’Donnell), a charmer who happily supports his docu-filmmaking and prods him out of his shell of insecurity around members of the fairer sex. Obstacles arise in each relationship, but naturally they’re overcome by the time Jake screens his little film about “Love in Woodstock”—to great success—at a little film festival. (Beresford makes the mistake of actually showing it to us. It’s no award-winner.)
Almost nothing in “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” rings true. The situations reek of artificiality, whether in the syrupy “dramatic” moments or the broad sitcomish ones, and the dialogue is forced. (It’s almost painful to watch Morgan recite stilted lines about air balloons and their sacks of ballast, and even worse when the image returns as part of the big finale.) The acting is hobbled by the material. Keener and Olsen try to bring some authentic emotion to their roles, but most of the others simply coast along. Fonda, however, comes on strong and brassy, as has always been her habit, and Beresford seems to have been content to let her, apparently working in mellow directorial mode this time around—maybe on a Woodstock high himself. On the technical side there’s nothing special here—Carl Sprague’s production design, Elise G. Viola’s art direction, Robert H. Schleinig’s set decoration and Johann Stegmeir’s costumes are all more than adequate, but Andre Fleuren’s cinematography doesn’t show them in the best light, nor does it use the locations particularly well.
“Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is good-natured, eager to please and harmless, but also contrived, trite and bland.