Cannes, day two: Adapt or die

Some people lead fascinating lives—but that doesn’t mean they’ll make for fascinating movies. Two celebrated directors took their shot at docudrama yesterday, both stumbling through the chronic malaise of true-life stories: inevitability. What is the takeaway when history’s already been written? Jane Campion, director of The Piano, sunk her teeth into the romance of doomed poet John Keats in the swooning but shallow Bright Star, while Ang Lee dropped a tab of bad acid for his hopelessly square look at an iconic baby boomer moment, Taking Woodstock. Deft hands have elsewhere worked reality into cinematic epiphanies; what went wrong here?

The better of the two is Campion’s Bright Star, mainly because her sensual camerawork makes the tortured love affair between sensitive soul Keats (a pallid Ben Whishaw) and uptight Fanny Bawne (Abbie Cornish) downright palpable. Languid strolls through fields of violet, tender recitations of illuminating stanzas and stolen glances from one amour to another make this otherwise static costume drama linger in the heart longer than it should. (Horndogs trying to score with lit-major crushes, take note.)
But the clear-eyed will see a superficial summation of one young woman’s devotion to a dying young man, dressed up in costume-drama icing and a sheen of feminist harrumphing. Complicating the attraction is Keats’s Scottish writing partner, Brown (Paul Schneider, bleating an aggressive brogue), whose overprotective bromance with his friend adds a certain frisson in light of Bawne’s advances—but not enough to supply emotional heft. Overall, it’s stuffy treacle. You can see the SNL parody already.
Hardly groovier is Taking Woodstock—but would you expect any less from auteur Ang Lee, master of buttoned-down longing and quiet reserve? His take on the counterculture’s August 1969 festival is a watered-down theme park tour. Throw in a few naughty glimpses of free-love nudity (these long-haired hippies are straight from central casting) and a rose-tinted slice of milquetoast emerges—safe enough for a grandma to gum without any risk of sharp, pointed insights.
Comedian Demetri Martin, making his acting debut as upstate gatekeeper Elliot Tiber, does a yeoman’s job carrying all the nonsense on his lanky frame as the young innocent whose plan for a classical-music concert balloons beyond his control into three days of mud-soaked peace, love and music. His emotional conflict with an overbearing Jewish mother (scenery-chewing Imelda Staunton, practically spitting matzoh in people’s faces) is tiresome and makes Elliot’s inevitable break from parental control all the more obvious. Most perplexing is his timid emergence out of the closet. In the book upon which Lee’s movie is based, Elliot lives an aggressively gay double life in New York City. But Lee would have you think that it’s his contact high with the far-out festivalgoers that gives him the strength to discover his attraction to men. The Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain dialing down gay content? Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.