Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (Director: Bruce Beresford): Jane Fonda takes on just her third acting role in the past 21 years in director Bruce Beresford’s latest film. It’s not difficult to see what drew Fonda to the showy character of Grace, an eccentric hippie that allows her to send up her liberal Hanoi Jane image. What is hard to figure out is why she pulled herself out of semi-retirement for a dramedy that has little else going for it, as Grace inhabits a cinematic world that surrounds her with dull characters and uninventive storylines.
The plot: Diane, a repressed, conservative New York City lawyer (played by Catherine Keener) separates from her husband of 20 years and decides to take her two kids Zoe and Jake (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff, respectively) to visit her mother (Fonda’s character) in Woodstock, New York. Diane and Grace haven’t spoken in 20 years, an estrangement apparently stemming from an incident where Grace tried to sell an attendee at her daughter’s wedding some pot. Seems a little harsh, but okay. We know Grace is wacky because she lets chickens stay inside her house and still lives like the 60s never ended. Naturally, Diane’s kids come to love their cool new grandmother because she represents everything their uptight mother isn’t. The gang’s earnestly transformative trip finds Diane and Grace trying to heal their relationship, while Diane and the kids also all laughingly set off on their own romantic adventures: Diane hooks up with a carpenter/singer-songwriter played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe with a butcher played by Chace Crawford, and Jake with a diner waitress played by Marissa O’Donnell.
Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert’s script suffers greatly from an unimaginative over-reliance on the theme of opposites to create dramatic tension. That might be fine if they played this card once or twice, but they go to the well three times with it in pairing characters with diametrically opposed beliefs and ways of life. Along with the mother/daughter relationship we also have Zoe, a staunch vegetarian, falling for a guy who slices and dices dead animals for a living, and Diane fights her ingrained repression (and the fact she’s mere days removed from leaving her husband) as she falls for Morgan’s free spirited character. By the way, Morgan’s tone-deaf singing performances are by themselves enough for me not to recommend the film. The other major problem with the script is the reunion of Diane and Grace and the introduction of the kids to their grandmother for the first time. There’s some mild awkwardness, but other than that it just feels completely devoid of any emotion or basis in reality.
Fonda’s performance is one of the few redeeming parts of the film, even if Grace does veer somewhat toward being a caricature of an aging bohemian. Despite being 73, Fonda still brings a sexiness and energy to her work that’s a good fit for her mischievous character – her “cock block” line is one of the funniest I’ve heard in a film this year. Otherwise, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding disappointingly plays it safe and straight up.