Demetri Martin is one of the best observational comedians. His relaxed yet sincere demeanor melds so perfectly with his dead-pan delivery, and his Comedy Central series, The Demetri Martin Show, has included some of the funniest bits seen in a long while. What possessed Ang Lee to cast him as the lead in his latest film, Taking Woodstock, an embarrassingly sentimental look at the true story behind that three day orgy of drugs, peace and rock ‘n’ roll, is a mystery. Lee’s film is based on a memoir by (and revolves around) Elliot Tiber, the Brooklyn-born interior designer that was ultimately responsible for bringing the Woodstock music festival to the sleepy town of White Lake, New York. As Elliot, Martin (perhaps wisely) makes little effort to be anyone but himself. This saves us from what could have been two hours of very poor acting, but it also limits the character’s supposed “process of discovery.” Elliot, it turns out, is a closeted homosexual who at the beginning of the film is forced to move from New York City back to White Lake to help his parents run their dilapidated motel. He’s elected president of the local chamber of commerce, yet he finds that his efforts to invigorate the local economy and his parents’ ailing motel are blocked by both his stubborn mother and the ignorant, fearful townspeople. Fortune, however, shines upon him, and by chance he finds himself in a position to offer the Woodstock music festival the use of his town, much to the chagrin of his parents and the people of White Lake.
Though obviously the film could have benefited from a different casting director, “Taking Woodstock” also suffers from a lack of narrative coherence. Certainly Lee tried to capture the excitement and naivete that captivated those throngs of hippies, yet he lingers on the superficial, leaving us with the same images of peace signs, naked babies and drug-induced gyrations that we’ve seen over and over again in the newsreel clips. Similarly, Elliot’s path to sexual and personal liberation is half-baked, without any substantive soul-searching detectable. It’s unknown whether this is the result of Martin’s limited range or Lee’s own vision; regardless, the end result is a blurred narrative with all the breadth and depth of a Lifetime original. The film is not without its highlights. Imelda Staunton, playing Elliot’s mother Sonia, has once again proven herself a cinematic treasure, elevating her character from a stereotypical money-grubbing Jewish-Russian immigrant into the very epitome of the slave-driving mother — a slovenly, overweight beast of a women that extinguishes every last flame of happiness from anyone unfortunate enough to live in her vicinity. This is actually the second time she has played a character so thoroughly infuriating that the viewer wants to reach across the screen and strangle her (the first being her portrayal of Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Sadly, her paroxysms amount to all too brief flashes of inspiration in what is otherwise a decidedly mediocre film.