Some of the best Hollywood movies have little more of a mission than to implore us to sit back and be dazzlingly entertained. If we’re lucky, the studio powers-that-be greenlight a major motion picture that has a deep, thoughtful message at its core. It’s rare, however, that we get a mainstream film that delivers both qualities in equal measure. Imagine, then, the pleasures that await in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which opened at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema on June 15.
Diane (Catherine Keener) is a tough, hard-driven New York attorney who is accustomed to achieving tiger-lady greatness in the courtroom. When her husband abruptly asks for a divorce at the beginning of the film, Diane is blindsided, the wind knocked out of her. It’s a feeling she’s not used to. To give herself some time to depressurize away from the city prior to signing the divorce papers, she carts her reticent teenage children – snarky Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and romantically-challenged Jake (Nat Wolff) – off to bucolic Woodstock, New York, where she grew up.
Once there, they drop in on Diane’s estranged hippie mother Grace (Jane Fonda, in her first American film role since 2007’s Georgia Rule). Mother and daughter haven’t spoken since Grace sold pot to the guests at Diane’s wedding reception twenty years before. What to many people might seem a relatively inoffensive misdemeanor wounded Diane’s pride enough on her dream day that she cut all ties to her mother and spent the ensuing twenty years running from the shame of her past. After her husband’s divorce request, however, Diane feels the lure of family ties reeling her back to her familial roots.
But Diane’s pent-up resentments have a tight, unforgiving grip on her spirit, and in conflict with her reason for going home, she can’t quite seem to release the anger. In her time of pain, she yearns for a traditional maternal figure to comfort her, but by most appearances the unconventional, hippie-dippy Grace doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Grandma smokes and sells pot, parties, gives chickens free range in her house, stages peacenik protests with equally stuck-in-the-past townspeople, hosts moon-goddess worshipping gatherings with her earth-mother friends, and engages in any number of other decidedly un-uptight pursuits.
Diane’s flinty heart hates it all, but her offspring love it. Something’s gotta give. Therein lies the conflict that forms the heart of Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.
To be sure, the movie’s plot is rife with some predictable clichés that play things by the numbers. The estranged parent and child who struggle to overcome past hurts and unspoken words. The convenient presence of attractive, available love interests for Diane, Zoe, and Jake: hunky furniture maker and musician Jude (a swoon-worthy Jeffrey Dean Morgan); pretty-boy butcher Cole (Chace Crawford); and smitten coffeehouse barista Tara (Marissa O’Donnell).
It’s the way all the numbers add up so beautifully, however, that makes Peace, Love & Misunderstanding so worthwhile. One of the messages central to the film – that cynicism can blind us to the unexpected and sometimes fleeting moments of joy that make life a trip – is the very message that should ideally silence any critics who would find fault with the sentiments that abound in the story.
Director Bruce Beresford has always been at his best when helming films that featured relatable characters in human relationships dealing with real conflicts, including Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rich in Love. He knows how to get to the heart of relationship dramas and how to draw the sentimental essence out of a script. He continues that grand tradition here, generously guiding his cast through moments that are both intimate and wickedly hilarious.
And as the mother hen of the film’s cast, Fonda seems to be having the time of her life and career here. She’s a triumphant hoot as Grace. For audiences who thought her turn in 2005’s Monster-in-Law was a comedic revelation, nothing can adequately prepare for how loose and spirited she is as Grace. Given her well-documented past – a 1960’s political activist, but never an actual hippie – it’s a delight to see her having a bit of a lark with her reputation. She’s absolutely fearless and decidedly un-self-conscious. And being the genius Jane Fonda, she effortlessly balances the raucous surface humor with a deep emotional core that yearns as much for reconnection with her long-lost daughter and much as Diane yearns for it with her mother.
As Diane, it’s a pleasure to watch the always-brilliant Catherine Keener embody the character and give her an arc of emotions that’s so true-to-life. She starts off the film as brittle and bitter, but her frosty exterior begins to melt, courtesy of some persistence by Jude and the total-immersion dive back into a nurturing place she worked so hard to disassociate herself from.
We can leave the homes of our origins. We can find new families and new senses of community. We can even endeavor to cut people out of our lives who we were always destined to be attached to for a lifetime. But that doesn’t always make it right. Sooner or later, we can – and should – go home again, because that’s where true healing can take place.
Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is, quite simply, a joyous and life-affirming gem.