Director Bruce Beresford and writers Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski simply fail to make an impact. There are no legitimate obstacles to the storylines of any characters in “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” but problems magically pop up and then smoothly disappear. People talk about melodrama and serious reactions to things, but don’t actually do them; everything is handled really efficiently but without much passion. “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” feels strangely listless, with clearly talented actors having precious little to do but stand around and make doe eyes at each other and then argue about nothing and then get gooey again. Surprise isn’t a part of this film.
Successful lawyer Diane (Catherine Keener, of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” and “Where the Wild Things Are”) is blindsided when her husband demands a divorce, and her shock drives her out of New York City and to Woodstock to visit her mother. With her two children, Columbia University undergrad Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen, of “Silent House”) and high schooler Jake (Nat Wolff), along for the trip, Diane dumps the divorce news on them and then hopes the time in Woodstock can help them process the end of the marriage. And this Woodstock, with Grandma Grace’s (Jane Fonda) old house full of art, furniture, chickens, and marijuana, is certainly a drastic change of pace.
Diane resolutely disapproves of the drugs, of course, but is also wary of Woodstock’s overall community, since all of its members seemingly worship Grace and her endless stories about Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. She’s the kind of woman who believes she foretold Diane re-entering her life after 20 years away through a dream in which “a little sparrow came to me with a broken wing … [and] pulled a butterfly from my stomach,” and her schedule includes bonfires, moon ceremonies, anti-war parties, and raging parties. Of course.
At those events are where Diane, Zoe, and Jake each spot people whom challenge and enthrall them. For Diane, its furniture maker and singer-songwriter Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of “Jonah Hex” and “The Losers”), whose soothing laugh and working-class appeal feel cozy and comfortable. Zoe starts a flirtation with local butcher Cole (Chace Crawford, of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”); his job runs counter to her vegetarian ideals, but his quick wit and knowledge of literature and philosophy keep her surprised. And Jake is just so shocked that any girl would talk to him, especially the pretty and awkward Tara (Marissa O’Donnell), that he’s immediately smitten.
As the four members of the family work out their issues with each other, their romantic relationships get tangled up, of course, but the script from Mengert and Muszynski falters in building any real tension. There are no dramatically overdone moments or declarations of love—which is a refreshing change from most romances—but it never seems like characters actively make decisions, either. Things just happen and they seem to shrug through their reactions. And since back-stories aren’t really provided, motivations are unclear; the reason why Diane and Grace haven’t spoken for 20 years is especially underwhelming, as is the love triangle that pops up near the film’s conclusion and is then hastily dealt with.
And while Fonda and Olsen especially elevate the film, they’re still saddled with clunky lines like “I don’t see you for 20 years and then I’m blessed with a prophetic dream; you’ve been through something dramatic” and “Lamb; could you pick a more helpless animal?” This isn’t subtle moviemaking, from that kind of dialogue to the quick shots from love interest to love interest. Yes, we know they like each other. We don’t need constant affirmation.
Overall, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” wants to probe at how families can change their members for the better, but the film’s hippie, Republican, feminist, and scruffy hipster stereotypes feel irredeemably repetitive (especially in comparison with this past February’s similarly themed “Wanderlust”). There’s a journey here, but by the time you reach its destination, you’ll realize “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” wasn’t really that memorable of a trip.