Peace, Love & Misunderstanding: Jane Fonda Deserves Better
Three generations of fine actresses are squandered in Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, an incompetently structured film that pits hippies against squares with the usual wearying results. This head-hammering, clash-of-values family-healing dramedy makes sure to literalize all its uplifting messages; gentle admonitions about "letting go" are immediately followed by a bright yellow balloon's release into a cerulean sky.
Reeling from her husband's demand for a divorce, pinched Manhattan lawyer Diane (Catherine Keener) drives to Woodstock with her two teenage children in tow for a reprieve at the home of her earth-goddess mother, Grace (Jane Fonda). Diane, appalled by Mom's pot-growing and free-loving, hasn't spoken to Grace in 20 years; her children, Whitman-quoting vegan Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and twerpy aspiring filmmaker Jake (Nat Wolff), are meeting their batik-dress-wearing granny for the first time. The teens marvel at Grace's chime- and chicken-filled house and find first love in Ulster County. Diane can't relax enough to get out of her casual Friday J. Crew dresses and sensible heels, and at first, she recoils from but eventually succumbs to Grace's rituals: anti-war protests in the town square every Saturday, a full-moon-worshiping sister-circle, filled with ululating and a miserable-looking Rosanna Arquette.
Written by first-timers Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert and directed by old-timer Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), PL&M chucks specific characterization and conflict for countless clichés (both visual and oral), pop-psych bromides ("I promised myself I would never enable her again," Diane says after she bails Grace out of jail for weed dealing), and semi-topical headlines (Chace Crawford's butcher of organic meats lectures on GMOs). The caustic sending-up of the pieties of today's Aquarian set that buoyed this year's Wanderlust is absent, as Beresford prefers simpler sight gags of crystal-curing and the kids getting high with Grandma.
How much longer must we wait for a vehicle worthy of Fonda, whose past few roles are just shy of elder abuse? This is the lioness' fourth film since re-emerging after a 16-year hiatus with Monster-in-Law (2005), in which she played a shrill grotesque who at least got to mix it up with Wanda Sykes. Fonda's next vehicle, Garry Marshall's abysmal Georgia Rule (2007), generated some interest whenever her strict grandmother (essentially the antithesis of PL&M's Grace) squared off against the unraveling — both on- and off-camera — Lindsay Lohan. Although matched with the gifted Keener and Olsen, Fonda and her distaff co-stars are simply undone by PL&M's baggy script and Beresford's awkward transitions. But there's hope: Lee Daniels has cast Fonda as Nancy Reagan in his upcoming biopic The Butler — which should allow her to cut loose in a project sure to bear the director's floridly insane signature.