It's one of the greatest truisms of both movies and life -- you spend a long time rebelling against your parents, until you discover you've become them, for good or ill. When you're a teenager, you do nearly everything you can to go against what your mother and father want from you, but once you've settled into middle age, you find -- sometimes to your horror -- that you're following a path very similar to the one your folks were traveling when you were busy telling them they were not the boss of you. This sort of story has been told so many times it's hard to say if there's anything fresh to be found in it; director Bruce Beresford and screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski spend 96 minutes frantically looking in the comedy-drama Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, but for the most part this is a mass of well-meaning clichés that elicits more groans than smiles, even if the roles are reversed and it's the mom, not the daughter, who's smoking weed and getting in trouble with the law.
Diane (Catherine Keener) is setting the table for a dinner party at her upscale Manhattan apartment when her husband Mark (Kyle MacLachlan) suddenly, bluntly informs her that he wants a divorce. Angry and out of sorts, Diane announces she wants to take their two teenage children with her for a visit to her mother in Woodstock. Mark, surprised, replies, "But you hate your mother," and we soon learn that Diane's feelings about her mom run so strong that her kids have never even met her. Once Diane arrives in Woodstock with her daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Jake (Nat Wolff) in tow, we discover just how far the apple has fallen from the tree. Diane is a straight-laced, humorless lawyer with a politically and emotionally conservative nature, while her mother Grace (Jane Fonda) is a joyously unrepentant hippie who claims Diane was born while Jimi Hendrix was playing at the Woodstock Music Festival. Grace is the queen bee of Woodstock's sizable community of counterculture relics, and eagerly espouses free love, spiritual enlightenment, and consciousness expansion. And she practices what she preaches, taking turns with a handful of lovers and earning her living growing and selling marijuana. Zoe and Jake, who see their mother as cold and uptight, take an immediate liking to Grace, though neither is quite up to her bohemian status; Zoe is a college freshman with progressive politics, an interest in poetry, and a passionate conviction that meat is murder, while Jake is a socially awkward high-school student who wants to be a filmmaker and seems most comfortable looking at the world through his camera.
As Grace encourages the kids to open up and let their freak flags fly, she also plays matchmaker. She introduces Zoe to Cole (Chace Crawford), a handsome and principled young man who, to Zoe's chagrin, works at an organic butcher shop. She offers advice to Jake on how to impress Tara (Marissa O'Donnell), a cute girl who works at the local café. And she sets the initially disinterested Diane up with Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a handsome and sensitive furniture artist. Diane begins to wonder if it's time she let go of her anger and resentment over her mother's lackadaisical parenting skills, especially after she and Jude hit it off, but that doesn't stop her from being outraged by Grace's eagerness to expose her kids to this lifestyle. In addition, Diane eventually learns that Jude has a secret that could destroy their budding relationship.
Jane Fonda is more closely associated with the counterculture of the 1960s than any star of her generation, but Fonda was always a militant with a serious and passionate bent, and in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, she seems to relish the opportunity to play the sort of carefree, free-spirited hippie she never got to be back in the day. Fonda is clearly having a marvelous time reveling in Grace's enthusiasm for sex, pot, and the Grateful Dead, and while her dialogue is often a trite mélange of boilerplate flower-child nonsense, she delivers it with such warmth and good humor that she almost single-handedly allows the movie to get by on her charm. (It doesn't hurt that Fonda, while allowing some concessions to her age, looks more lovely, radiant and sensuous than any 74-year-old has a right to be.) Elizabeth Olsen doesn't get as much to work with as Zoe, but she plays her know-it-all character with a calm, understated wit that makes her far more likable than she would have been in most hands. And while Nat Wolff's Jake is so geeky you keep expecting someone to give him a wedgie, he's funny and engaging despite his frequently absurd dialogue, and his interplay with Marissa O'Donnell is genuine and likable.
Catherine Keener, on the other hand, has the thankless task of playing Diane, and while she makes her a richer and more nuanced character than one might fear, she's unable to clear the film's biggest conceptual hurdle -- it's obvious Diane doesn't want to reconcile with Grace and doesn't like the impact her mother has on her kids, so why exactly is she there? Diane's efforts to loosen up have been trundled in for convenience rather than narrative logic, and pretty much anyone can see the third-act twist coming a mile away. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan tries hard, but as written Jude seems too good to be true, and that dooms his performance despite his obvious effort.
Director Bruce Beresford tries to give Peace, Love & Misunderstanding a sheen of sunny, aging-hippie good vibes, but the freakier his characters, the more they come off as cartoons than people, and Fonda is the only full-on flower child in the movie who feels like a real character rather than a prop. The picture moves along nicely and doesn't overstay its welcome, but emotionally Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is woefully facile and plays like a situation comedy with some marijuana-fueled partying thrown in than an honest study of the difficult dynamics of a family. By the end of the film, you can't help but wish Fonda's Grace could wander off into a better, funnier movie than this ill-starred contrivance.