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Review: Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding

'Somewhere Alison Bechdel is screaming.'

 

Judging by its predictable wacky-family-conquers all themes, its ultra-saccharine tone, and its dull flat photography, my guess is that Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding only barely escaped being a Lifetime Channel original movie. The film is a thuddingly obvious and manipulative affair that uses weepy confessions and warming familial hugs the same way porn uses money shots. It's exactly the kind of Hollywood schmaltz that people refer to when they decry Hollywood schmaltz. And, ironically enough, it's a small-budget film produced by IFC. Indie films have come so far that they now resemble the worst part of Hollywood; the part they were trying to get away from by becoming indie in the first place.

The film's saving grace, if it has one, is the presence of Jane Fonda in the central role of a lifelong hippie still living in Woodstock, NY in 2012. Fonda's talents are unquestionable, but it's a pity she has been saddled with so little heft in such a sickly featherweight film like this one. Fonda plays a clichéd hippie gramma (complete with tie-dye shirts, wispy Mother Earth skirts, and a habit of dealing marijuana) who is set up as a wise, emotionally in-touch sage, but only comes across as an impish, meddling yenta, whose occasionally genuine sweetness is undercut by a sour know-it-all tone that does a disservice to the character, Fonda herself, and the film at large. Oh yes, and the audience as well. Let us not forget the disservice to the audience.

Catherine Keener plays Diane, a button-down, Reagen-reading New York City lawyer whose husband (an underused Kyle McLachlan) asks for a divorce in the film's first scene (utilizing one of maybe three lines of his dialogue). Diane's only recourse is to pack up her college-age feminist daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Olson) and dweeby film nut son Jake (Nat Wolff) and crash with mum out in the sticks. Mom is a flower child of the first order, who never let the Summer of '69 end in her home. She has free-roaming indoor chickens, eats solely from her garden, and marches in protests of unknown object; you get the feeling that free-form protests are artificially staged in Woodstock just to impress visiting tourists. Indeed, most of the film's version of Woodstock feels like a tourist orchestration.

From there, gramma sets to solve all her city-dwelling folks' neuroses by essentially getting them dates. Jake gets hooked-up with a cute, fleshy local gal, and they smooch a bit. Zoe is introduced to an incredibly good-looking butcher (Chace Crawford) whose profession bugs the hell out of her; she seems to only now understand where meat comes from. And Diane herself is hooked up with the thick-necked and Earthy Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who looks a bit like Javier Bardem ate Rock Hudson's character from All that Heaven Allows. The lesson here? A little bit of necking and nookie with country bumpkins can solve all your problems.

Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding is the latest in an ever-growing sub-genre of romantic comedies that involve neurotic city women moving to the country (or small town, or fishing village) to find the wholesome dirt-living purity of the place to be the only cure for their workaholic bitchiness. I think Sandra Bullock has starred in that film several times. Reese Witherspoon too. Why is the reverse so rare? Why can't we have a film about a country gal who moves to the big city, only to find the sex, coffee, late nights, bookshops, and conversation to be her salvation? This is why I'm so fond of a 1996 John Schlesinger film called Cold Comfort Farm. In that film, a city gal moves to the country, only to use her cosmopolitan eruditeness to improve country life. It inverts what we know.

How is it three generations of talented actresses got roped into something so banal and insipid? Fonda is a legitimate legend, whose real life activism severely outstrips her on-screen counterpart's. Keener, despite being involved in many duds, is one of the best of her generation, all too often asked to play the bitchy ice queen. And Elizabeth Olsen is slowly proving herself, over the last year or so, to be a dynamic and interesting screen presence. This limp pseudo-woman-power tread, laced with '70s TV-movie psychobabble, seems like a dismissive aside for all three actresses.

Another thing: The film is about three women. The solution to their problems? Men. Feminism indeed. Somewhere Alison Bechdel is screaming.