Few trends have damaged the quality of modern filmmaking more than the growing importance of opening weekend box office numbers. For a movie to be considered a hit, it must perform well on Day One; the industry no longer supports 10-week engagements that allow quality films to grow based on audience word-of-mouth. As a result, the vast majority of projects that get green-lit are those that can be easily sold through 30-second spots and viral marketing campaigns, which usually means that they are based on some sort of self-distinguishing stylistic gimmick. Such gimmicks, no matter how sexy and unique they may appear in advertising, have ultimately homogenized the industry because they distract filmmakers from the things that actually give movies personality: rich stories and authentic characters.
Thus, when a completely gimmick-free movie like “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” comes along, it is especially appreciable. Sure, director Bruce Beresford’s latest may not achieve anything groundbreaking–the premise is built on more than one cliché–but it’s a welcome respite from most other films currently in release, which build stories around advertising campaigns rather than the proper way around. The sole stylistic device Beresford uses is the interspersing of footage captured on a character’s camcorder. Instead of trying to gussy up the movie, he strips it down so that the audience can focus on what’s most important: the people that inhabit it.
Characters are really what “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is all about, for the movie operates best as a work for the viewer to live vicariously through. Beresford and screenwriters Joseph Muszynski and Cristina Mengert don’t wrestle with any particularly dense themes, instead offering up a leisurely ride for the viewer to engage on a purely emotional level. After her husband asks for a divorce, uptight Manhattanite Diane (Catherine Keener) takes off with their teenage kids (Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff) to spend some time with her hippie-stoner mother (Jane Fonda) in Woodstock, N.Y. A lot of what one would expect happens–all three discover new loves and Fonda chews the scenery playing a character that’s not too far off from her real-life persona–but there’s a sweetness to the material and a likability to the people that make the movie ring true. When it’s over, the audience feels as though they’d like to have been a part of the action — and what Beresford gives them is the next best thing.
Being that the movie’s spirit is essentially what makes it work, one wonders if it would have paid off for Beresford and the writes to have scaled back the plot even further, ditching the thread focusing on Keener’s marital strife. While Keener and Kyle MacLachlan, playing her husband, do a credible job with the material, it exists only to create a basic plot for the movie, which wasn’t necessary. In fact, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” would have been better off had it taken a cue from Fonda’s hippie mantra and absolved itself of conflict altogether. That said, as it is, the movie is already about as no-frills as contemporary narrative pictures get — effortless, earnest, endearing. And about that Elizabeth Olsen — even in a low-key charmer like this, the young actress once again proves that she is destined to become a big star.