‘Peace, Love & Misunderstanding’: Hokey hippies

June 7, 2012

There’s spoof that works and there’s caricature that depends on stereotype – and Bruce Beresford’s “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is witless caricature.

Watching it makes you wonder what its creators saw in the script by Joseph Muszynski and Christine Mengert. In the world it creates, the town of Woodstock, NY, and the surrounding environs are permanently trapped in a 1969 time warp, one in which everyone still wears tie-dye and smokes weed.

That certainly describes Grace (Jane Fonda), first seen working clay on a potter’s wheel while singing Simon and Garfunkel. She is discovered there by her daughter Diane (Catherine Keener), with whom she hasn’t spoken in 30 years. Mom is a hippie; daughter ran away to New York and joined the establishment as a lawyer, embracing conservative politics as well.

But when her husband (Kyle MacLachlan) announces that he wants a divorce, she takes their two teens (Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff) to visit the grandmother they’ve never met. They might as well be stepping into the Wayback Machine and setting the date for “Extra Groovy.”

Grace’s Woodstock is a place where the Grateful Dead are always on the radio and Grandma tells stories about sleeping with Leonard Cohen (while others whisper about the night she spent with Bob Dylan). Grace just wants to reestablish ties with Diane, to get to know her grandchildren so she won’t be so lonely.

Diane, however, still holds a grudge: Grace sold pot to her friends at her wedding. Grace has her own long-standing beef: Diane had her arrested. Now it’s time for everyone to join hands and reconnect the way families are meant to.

But everything in this film is so on-the-nose that it turns into the place where subtlety goes to die. That’s true in the very first metaphor, when the chickens come home to roost for this family, made concrete by the fact that Grace lets her chickens wander around her house, in case you haven’t thought of it yourself.

Fonda is radiant in flowing salt-and-pepper tresses. Keener, however, is stuck playing the grouchy drudge, who is lured out of her cocoon of crabbiness by a cool local dude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a guy who comes across as so preternaturally eager that you suspect he might be on meth. Mr. Mellow talks her into climbing up onstage at the town fair to join him in a duet of “The Weight” – and we have to listen to the whole thing, to get the point that she’s gotten in touch with her soul or her spirit or whatever it is that Fonda is hawking.

About the only thing Fonda doesn’t mention is “the circle of Life,” probably because it’s got a Disney copyright on it. But she has a bromide for every problem, and a hands-on hugginess to go with it.

The occasional moments of genuine emotion are swept aside by the contrived confrontations between parent and child. The comedy is never less than obvious, and Fonda never looks comfortable playing the knowledgably randy granny.

“Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is rehashed generation-gap humor, with a shortage of jokes that actually work. There’s no hippie like an old hippie and nothing nearly as hokey as a cliché.

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