'I think there's gonna be another riot," a male caller tells young Elliot Tiber in "Taking Woodstock." It's an early hint that Tiber, played with great sensitivity by comedian Demetri Martin, is openly gay when visiting New York City, but not here in his parents' dumpy Catskills motel. And as he recalls the violent, liberating protests at the Manhattan gay bar Stonewall Inn in June 1969, he smiles.
But smiling, or stifling a smile, is nearly all this emotionally paralyzed character does in "Taking Woodstock," Ang Lee's adaptation of Tiber's memoir. Tiber, né Teichberg, helped bring the Woodstock Music & Art Fair to tiny Bethel, N.Y., whose residents rewarded him with anti-hippie, anti-Jewish wrath - a story potentially full of color, chaos and transformation. But the movie is frustratingly sedate, more opiate than hallucinogen.
Lee and producer-screenwriter James Schamus ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") aim for comedy but come up with cliches: the wigged-out Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), the gun-toting drag queen (Liev Schreiber), the genial stoner in the VW bus (Paul Dano). Tiber's grasping, screeching mother (Imelda Staunton) actually borders on an ugly stereotype. Only the shrewd farm owner Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) seems like a real person.
Tiber's book mentions several gay experiences, some empowering, some brutalizing, but here they're reduced to two: a brief hookup and an ambiguous hug-fest. It's a strangely timid approach from the director of "Brokeback Mountain." Given the low social status of gays in the 1960s, a time when other minorities were not only championed but positively idealized by the hippies, "Taking Woodstock" could have shed light on a larger story.
Instead, the movie stays small and, like its protagonist, fearfully constricted. Forget peace and love, you want to tell Tiber. Go start that riot.
Taking Woodstock (2 stars)