Jane Fonda doesn’t make very many movies, with “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” her first effort in four years. It’s a shame she doesn’t work more, because her veteran spirit is sorely needed for situations like this, where the script falls flat, the rest of the performances drag along the ground, and the direction is more permissive than authoritative. Fonda’s the only reason to sit through the lifelessness of the picture, with her thespian spark adding enormous verve to an otherwise tedious and formulaic multi-generational drama with a serious hippie spin. I can’t imagine what a bore “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” would be without her presence.
The setting of Woodstock is perhaps the only distinguishing mark on “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” a largely forgettable feature that at least makes the effort to conjure a community of hippies clinging to their activism and drug habits, spending their days congregating to hear live music, worship the full moon, and deal patiently with the bad vibes of outsiders. Their leader is Grace, a woman who gave birth during Jimi Hendrix’s set at Woodstock and never left. She’s a free spirit surrounded by chickens, delighted to have her daughter and grandchildren back in her life after a two-decade absence, sensing their return in a heavily symbolic dream. And here lies the beginning of the sitcom script by Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski, creating cardboard characters with heavy concern, unleashed in a liberal wonderland of free love, marijuana, and endless stories about the 1960s.
The conflicts are routine, repeating an opposites attract formula as a guide to understanding these thawing characters as they let love in. The predictability isn’t the sole problem with “Misunderstanding,” it’s the tortoise pace of it all, watching decent actors hem and haw over easily solvable problems, often in the most exaggerated manner possible (Olsen is especially guilty of indication). Director Bruce Beresford doesn’t provide a needed drive to the material, content to dwell on quarrels of limited dramatic weight, laboring through Diane’s arc of motherly disgrace and sexual awakening, while Ivy League-educated Zoe is confronted with a working-class reality, and Jake deals with a girlfriend while provoking loved ones to help juice up his documentary (aiming to be the next Werner Herzog). And there’s Grace, who flutters around the story, dispensing sage advice while working out her own maternal shortcomings. Fonda truly provides a guiding light in “Misunderstanding,” managing quirk and emotional pain in a stimulating manner, doing her damndest to pump up the flatness Beresford can’t seem to shake.
Feeling as though it was trimmed severely from its original form (Katharine McPhee appears as a singer for a single scene), “Misunderstanding” stumbles to a conclusion, quickly tying up the unrest in 90 minutes. Pieces are missing, but the short running time turns out to be a godsend. With a mess like this, belaboring plot points that are sure to fall flat on their face only grinds the viewing experience to a halt. Better to chop and run while keeping the spotlight on Fonda.