I frequently rail sanctimoniously against movie marketing for its annoying habit of selling a product quite different from what the audience actually gets subjected to. I get frustrated, mainly, because the impulse on the part of advertisers to make a movie appeal to as broad an audience as possible can frequently cultivate an unreasonable set of expectations the work either does not deserve or was never keen on sating in the first place. That can have damaging implications for movies striving for something a little more interesting or daring. This might explain, for example, why some were disappointed in Greg Mattola’s deeply underappreciated Adventureland for not being another Superbad, or why others saw fit to file suit against the makers of Drive for its insufficient depiction of people driving.
But sometimes the marketing for a movie is capable of telling us with astonishing precision what to expect. In the case of Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, practically every major beat to the plot, every individual conflict, and every neat and tidy resolution can be predicted based purely on the movie’s poster and studio-sponsored plot synopsis. But something tells me this phenomenon has less to do with the astuteness of the movie’s marketers than it does Beresford’s stalwart reliance on formula to get his story across. If this movie genuinely surprises you at any point, then there’s a good chance you weren’t paying attention.
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding begins with an ending of sorts. Diane, an uptight conservative lawyer played by Catherine Keener, is approached by her husband (Kyle McLachlan) with a sudden request for a divorce. Clearly rattled by the news, Diane is prompted to pack her bags and whisk their kids Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolff) on a weekend trip to Woodstock, New York to visit Grace (Jane Fonda), her wacky, liberal, hippie-dippy pothead of a mother. A mother, incidentally, she has not spoken with in twenty years.
If you suspected – based on the above synopsis – that this movie is all about learning life-affirming lessons in the midst of crazy Jane Fonda shenanigans, then pat yourself on the back; you managed to get the point of Peace, Love and Misunderstanding without even watching it. Indeed, everybody in the movie gets transformed somehow during their visit with Grandma and during their encounters with the ultra-progressive townsfolk of Woodstock. Interestingly, practically each individual character arc here centers around some kind of romance. Jake, an aspiring filmmaker trying to document his visit to Woodstock, begins crushing on one of his subjects (Marissa O’Donnell). Zoe, a militant vegetarian trying to negotiate both her bleeding heart and her mind-narrowing privilege, finds her convictions challenged when she falls for Woodstock’s butcher and resident heartthrob (Chace Crawford). Once Grace learns about Diane’s the divorce, she immediately sets up her daughter with yet another resident heartthrob (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). That one happens to be a carpenter and a singer.
It’s easy to understand what Beresford and his screenwriters Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert were gunning for with all these branching storylines. Their hope is that they will facilitate the individual development for each character, thereby creating a rich tapestry of character development that will serve to facilitate the healing process for the slowly fracturing family at the movie’s center. But since the characters are drawn so broadly and it is difficult to buy any of the dialogue being read by these perfectly able performers (allow me, briefly, to reaffirm my love for Elizabeth Olsen), they feel less like complements to the main story than unkempt distractions. There is certainly a tapestry here, but it’s a rather clumsily woven one.
And what of Jane Fonda’s performance? Well, I would argue Fonda is given the easiest, most fun job in this entire production, as Grace is less a character than she is a catalyst for the aforementioned character arcs. It’s a formula similar to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, but actually plays out as something closer to Pauly Shore in Son in Law. The problem with Grace is not to be found exclusively in Fonda’s performance, though. In this story, Grace is supposed to be the wild card, the dangerous element and even the agent of chaos. But everything about her weed-smoking, war-protesting, granola-eating, full-moon-howling antics feel deathly calibrated to keep in sync with the formulaic beats of the plot. Living on a chicken farm and possessing a wardrobe filled with ostensibly 40-year-old rags, even her grunginess feels impeccably glamorized; practically every hair on her head appears coiffed in just the right direction to evoke the most idyllic image of disarray.
It’s as if we are meant never to forget that, at 74, Fonda remains as stunning a beauty as she’s ever been. That might make for a nice vanity project, but it hardly makes for compelling characterization. And perhaps that possibility hints at what Peace, Love and Understanding ultimately proves to be about. It’s not about the endurable bonding power of family. It’s not about the ongoing struggle of loving people whose world views repel you. It’s about watching beautiful people sharing the screen, portending to a larger, more poignant truth. But the beauty behind that truth, and of this movie, is merely skin-deep.
Bottom Line: Not even the talented actors starring in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding are enough to help the movie rise above its done-to-death formula.