Creatively comatose and dramatically inert, Taking Woodstock offers only fleeting moments of entertainment in its 110-minute chronicling of the momentous music festival that characterized the summer of 1969.
The story goes something like this: Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), the 20-something president of the Chamber of Commerce in a small town in upstate New York, attains a permit for his annual, low-key music festival when he learns that a neighboring town has rejected plans for the Woodstock Festival to take place there. Pressured by his parents' increasing poverty, Tiber calls Woodstock Ventures and offers his hamlet as an alternative venue.
And that is what most of the film is actually about - not music, but process and the various personal and organizational conflicts Tiber faces in the two weeks leading up to the festival. Ang Lee, the director, clearly did not try to make a Woodstock movie, but a lighthearted comedy and coming-of-age tale set to the ethos of the 1960s.
Comedy is not a genre Lee and longtime screenwriter James Schamus have approached since 1997's The Ice Storm though, and the jokes here are either too slight to provoke laughter or are fueled by gross Jewish stereotypes. Tiber's mother is a ridiculously avaricious caricature, charging lodgers extra for towels and staring with gaping, gluttonous eyes at the sight of $5,000. Not only is such a contrivance mined for comedy, but also for drama later in the film when an inane twist takes Mrs. Tiber's greed to extremity.
Besides that, we are presented with a hippie theatre troupe that is ostensibly funny because the characters are closer to exhibitionists than actors. This includes a Vietnam veteran (Emile Hirsch) who can't distinguish between war flashbacks and reality. There isn't a single character that doesn't feel expendable.
Taking Woodstock is the type of film that employs unreasonable amounts of split-screen editing because it knows it's boring. That this variety of mediocrity is directed by Ang Lee is dismaying, as there is little here that reminds one of Brokeback Mountain or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
By the time the festival actually rolls around and Tiber is tripping on acid alongside two hippies, the insipidity has already killed any excitement and the colorful stupor is fittingly anticlimactic. That Taking Woodstock is watchable despite its pointlessness is sort of staggering; it's almost never enjoyable yet goes down relatively easily, largely because it's so lethargically content with its lack of ambition.
Late in the film, Lee arranges an endless traffic jam with the camera panning past hippies playing chess on top of their unmoving vehicle. This is an apt metaphor for the picture itself - stagnant and uninspired.