Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” appears to have provided Cannes with its first high-profile disappointment. While it doesn’t appear to be a disaster by any means, the general consensus appears to be that it doesn’t meet the very high standard Lee set for himself with his last two features.
Allan Hunter at Screen Daily finds much to like in the film, calling it a “sweet, meandearing tribute” to the eponymous festival, he ultimately declares it inconsequential:
Taking Woodstock is accessible but very lightweight and should enjoy moderate commercial success as a specialised domestic release. The very American, softly sentimental nature of the film will make it a harder sell internationally … While the wider themes are persuasive enough its the smaller human stories that are disappointingly banal as Woodstock becomes a form of therapy for Elliot and his parents. Enjoyable in places and merely humdrum in others, Taking Woodstock ultimately feels like a minor Ang Lee digression in between more memorable works.
Hunter finds the film’s ensemble an equally mixed bag:
(Demetri Martin’s) gentle, guileless manner makes him perfect casting for Elliot without settling the matter of whether he is charismatic enough to have a sustained cinema career. Liev Schreiber brings dashes of sass and style to cross-dressing Vilma but Imelda Staunton’s dowdy, embittered Sonia is overcooked and all too reminiscent of Shelley Winters in full flow.
Jeff Wells’ take reads very similarly, if rather less gently:
It too often feels ragged and unsure of itself, and doesn’t coalesce in a way that feels truly solid or self-knowing. At best it’s a decent try, an in-and-outer. Spit it out — it’s a letdown … The big sprawling back-saga of how the festival came together — the element that audiences will be coming to see when it opens — too often feels catch-as-catch-can. It doesn’t seem to develop or intensify, and there’s no clean sense of chronology.
Taking Woodstock was just too big an undertaking, I suppose. In the same way that Lang and his partners instigated but couldn’t control the enormity and chaos of the ’69 festival, Lee was also overwhelmed. Tough fame, tough call, I’m sorry. Better luck next time.
The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab starts his review on a positive note, calling it “the most fun film in competition at Cannes so far” (not hard, I should think), but feels the film goes awry in its latter stages:
Alas, the fun does not last. Once the concert starts and Elliot has his inevitable LSD trip and introduction to free love, the film drops the comedy for a needless coming-of-age denouement in which Elliot breaks from his parents. It would have been better had the movie ended when the concert began.
Clearly this looks like one to strike from the awards contenders list, though ever since I saw the trailer, I’ve been unsure it should have been there in the first place. An “Ang Lee film” will always arrive with expectations of something special, though he’s as entitled to make an amusing divertissement as any other filmmaker. It may be that the film plays better with audiences upon its August release, with the weight of prestige removed from its shoulders. Of course, perhaps it’s simply an all-round misfire. For now, it’s lost the first round.