There are moments during certain romantic comedies when you might find yourself throwing up your hands and growling, “come on!” under your breath. And with good reason: the improbability of plotlines and inconsistencies of characters are enough to drive even the sappiest of us screaming from the theaters, scouring the streets for the realism and even cynicism that seems to have deserted us over the course of the film. “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding,” from director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies”), is not one of these kinds of rom-coms. At least, not entirely. Though wildly predictable from the outset, and undoubtedly sentimental in its bits of hippie-dippie, lovey-dovey wisdom, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the real world, and ultimately drives home an honest and applicable moral about accepting your family, warts and all.
The film wastes no time getting its story off the ground. Dialogue filters in over a black screen. A woman’s complaints about a friend’s taste in wine are quickly interrupted by a man’s request for a divorce. Smash cut to Diane’s (Catherine Keener) face as she looks up from the table she’s setting, shock turning to recognition as she takes in her husband, Mark (Kyle Maclachlan), and the utter seriousness of what’s just happened. Before the opening credits even roll, the two agree to make it official, but it’s clear that this is a one-sided decision. Psychologically wracked and immobilized by Mark’s proposal, Diane makes a last ditch effort at self-empowerment by escaping Manhattan for a weekend in favor of her mother’s home in Woodstock, NY, the couple’s two teenagers in tow. But here’s the catch: this isn’t just a trip to Mom’s for some TLC; Diane hasn’t spoken to her mother in 20 years, and the two couldn’t be more different.
Diane’s mother, Grace (Jane Fonda) is the longest haired, freest-spirited, loudest protesting, smallest eco-footprinted, most braless hippie in Woodstock, a bastion of free love and flower power. She farms organic crops, raises chickens that she keeps as houseguests, paints nudes (mostly of the locals), and has a pretty large grow house. She’s famous for her wild parties, always has been, and might have had a fling with Bob Dylan in the ‘60s. She spouts karmic wisdom and love thy neighbor mantras regularly. There’s no shortage of examples of the generation gap here, and the estrangement between Diane and Grace is made clear from the get-go. However, Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolff, of Nickelodeon’s “The Naked Brothers Band”) immediately cotton on to their grandmother, swallowing her folksy wisdom on relationships, sex, and writing poetry without hesitation.
So they decide to stay, despite the bouts of familial awkwardness. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of comely, available, age-appropriate individuals living in Woodstock, and the main characters each find a love interest without much difficulty. Diane finds relief in Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a carpenter friend of Grace’s who gets her to open up and embrace her upbringing rather than resisting it. Zoe finds love in her one true hate, her health-conscious vegetarian values clashing with those of Cole (Chace Crawford), the cigarette-smoking butcher. Finally, and probably most sweetly, Jake endures the awkwardness and wonderfulness of first love, as he begins dating Tara (Marissa O’Donnell). From here, the romance storylines unfold with the expected moments of passion and lovers’ quarrels. Yet, the rom-com model never subverts the relationship between the female characters, the three generations (Grace, Diane, and Zoe) in fact brought together by their relationships with these men. Though the film’s ending doesn’t carry much newness or surprise, and is broadcast with the clearest signal from its outset, it is nice to see the family narrative receive as much, if not more, weight than the romantic one.
Casting is spot-on and, in combination with strong performances from most of the actors, is easily the film’s best quality. Fonda’s inclusion as the veritable matriarch, spouting wisdom and wackiness from a bygone era, in many ways mirrors her reputation in the industry as well as her position in this film’s hierarchy. Keener, somewhat against type as the conservative, strait-laced lawyer, lets her usual leftist kook tendencies play as smothered predispositions of her childhood. Even Maclachlan, in his bit part, is a good fit. His unwaveringly proper mannerisms – carried over from roles on “Twin Peaks” and “Sex and the City” – are successfully counterbalanced with Fonda’s heartfelt nuttiness; it’s not hard to imagine that Diane saw Mark’s prissy ways as the perfect foil for her hippie upbringing. In fact, the film’s biggest laugh comes in an early scene, as Mark highlights the shortcomings of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with unbridled snobbery for a group of equally self-important Manhattanites.
Morgan and Crawford, meanwhile, serve largely as scenery, offering little more than appealingly easy going and unconventional love interests for the leading actresses. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that both are of the tousled, scruffy, countercultural, possibly a little dangerous, always sexy variety of scenery. And though Olsen and Wolff are both quite talented, and bring a certain newcomer quality to a cast of notables, their characters are not as appealing as the actors themselves. Written with oversized intelligence, pith, and insight, Jake and Zoe are less Diane’s children than her guardian angels masquerading as offspring. When Zoe argues with Grace about the “typical liberal propaganda” she’s painted, you can hear the echoes of a kid who listens to NPR and watches Bill Maher, but the dialogue’s all just a little bit too on the nose, just a little too preachy and precocious for a 19-year-old.
But this is probably the film’s biggest issue, and it is otherwise a fairly smooth, quick and enjoyable ride through Diane’s transition from uptight, overworked, and unhappy toward a looser, more immature, relaxed state. This is not a deep movie, and it doesn’t explore anything new in the way of family tensions or resolutions. But it isn’t glaringly fake or syrupy sweet either. Rather, it’s a generally realistic trip from Manhattan to upstate New York and back (and forth and back and forth) that generates easily digestible fare. The pace is quick, the characters likeable, and the tone humorous and sincere. At times suffering from an adherence to the rom-com playbook, overly predictable with lacings of schmaltz, “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding” is still a sweet, undemanding romantic comedy, great as an early summer debut. [B+]