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Happy as a Pig in Mud on Yasgur's Farm

MOVIE REVIEW
Taking Woodstock (2009)

TW12485RV2
Ken Regan/Focus Features

All these years admiring Liev Schreiber and it never occurred to me to wonder what he would look like in heels and hose. Wonder no longer. Mr. Schreiber's cross-dressing marine-cum-security guard is the liveliest thing on show in Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," an easygoing meander around 1969's legendary three-day music festival that ends up being neither one thing nor another. So Mr. Schreiber fits right in.

Depicting big events through the lives of small people on the fringes is a tried-and-tested gambit, but by design or legal requirement Mr. Lee and writer James Schamus soft-peddle the actual Woodstock concert so far that it recedes into the distance. Foregrounded instead are goings-on next door, at the seedy motel of elderly Jewish stereotypes, the Tibers: Sonia (Imelda Staunton, unleashing her inner Shelley Winters) and Jake (Henry Goodman, channeling Judd Hirsch so precisely that lawyers may become involved). Courtesy of a little entrepreneurial spirit, their son Elliot (Demtri Martin) rescues the Woodstock organizers from a legal hole, and the hippie world soon gathers on his doorstep.

Based on a book by the real-life Elliot Tiber, the film is too episodic and bitty to ever really motor, with characters arriving all the time to set up issues that never quite get addressed. Plus its agenda is showing: All the festival folk are so forward-thinking and can-do that the film earns its spot in the Obama age, and not just since there happens to be a war going on somewhere over the horizon. Of the film's two damaged veterans, Emile Hirsch draws the short straw, making the best of the traditional wide-eyed instability while trying to avoid resembling Jack Black too much. The other is Mr. Schreiber, whose combat experience apparently equipped him with a lifetime supply of advice and mentoring skills, Jiminy Cricket in slingbacks.

Way overextended at two full hours, this is a well-intentioned doodle by Mr. Lee that doesn't carry the spirit of its makers very strongly. Unless perhaps you count the very end, when festival lynchpin Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, already framed as an adonis even before Mr. Lee puts him on a horse for good measure) announces that he's thinking of doing it all again with the Rolling Stones. Mr. Lee lingers a little too long on Mr. Groff when he says it, and Mr. Schamus makes him say it twice for any audience member slow on the uptake, so the shadow of Altamont that drifts across for a moment isn't very subtle. But it's a neat enough way for the edgier filmmakers lurking anonymously behind the camera to acknowledge that these forward-thinking can-doers are about to hit a brick wall.

TAKING WOODSTOCK

Opens on Aug. 26 in New York and Los Angeles and on Nov. 6 in Britain.

Directed by Ang Lee; written by James Schamus, based on the book “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life” by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte; director of photography, Eric Gautier; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Mr. Lee, Mr. Schamus and Celia Costas; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Demetri Martin (Elliot), Dan Fogler (Devon), Henry Goodman (Jake Teichberg), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dan), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Paul Dano (VW Guy), Kelli Garner (VW Girl), Mamie Gummer (Tisha), Emile Hirsch (Billy) and Liev Schreiber (Vilma).

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