‘Always Woodstock’: Film Review

Always Woodstock Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Always Woodstock Still - H 2014

Never believable

Allison Miller and James Wolk get romantic in a music-themed comedy

The young New Yorker at the center of the cookie-cutter rom-com Always Woodstock heads to the country to reconnect with her singer-songwriter dreams. The city she’s left behind represents everything duplicitous and crass and venal; the legendary upstate burg where she resettles is the essence of down-home truth and simplicity. But with its faux small-town values, faux countercultural ethos and faux personal struggles, Rita Merson’s debut feature skews closer to delusion than honesty.

The writer-director relies too much on voiceover to set the stage, fill in crucial backstory and explain the protagonist’s state of mind — all things that the visuals and action should convey. Sex and swearing notwithstanding, the movie plays like an ultra-lightweight sitcom pilot, with Allison Miller and James Wolk as the adorably embattled soul mates who flirt and squabble and second-guess each other and themselves. It isn’t likely to find much love in its limited theatrical release.

Miller (Devil’s Due, Selfie) does her best to make an exasperating character a rootable interest, but it’s a losing proposition. Catherine, a conflicted corporate climber, is shaken out of her meaningless city existence by the old one-two punch: Fired from her job at a hotshot Manhattan record label, she comes home to find her actor fiancé (Jason Ritter, going with the cartoonish flow) indulging in a bit of afternoon delight with another woman.

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As luck and screenwriting contrivance would have it, the distraught Catherine remembers (!) that her childhood home, sitting dormant a couple of hours north in Woodstock, is hers for the wish-fulfillment taking. It’s just the ticket for getting in touch with her inner, guitar-strumming artist, especially after her latter-day Sex and the City friend (Anna Anissimova) provides the necessary credit line to redecorate the place.

There will be temptations from the big bad music biz, of course; this is the kind of story where a single song can land a record deal.

It’s also the kind of story where the meet-cute with Mr. Right arrives in the form of drunk karaoke on Catherine’s first night in town. Wolk’s Noah is not just the friendly guy in the bar who finds her lost earring. He’s also the GP who treats her for overdoing the vodka shots — and a local music impresario of sorts. As the story requires, the actor turns up the dial on the starry-eyed smitten routine. Noah’s the perfect eligible bachelor with a medical practice, but there’s an undeniable creep factor in his way-quick proclamations of love. Not unlike Wolk’s Mad Men character, Noah is all too ready, willing and able from the get-go.

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While he and Catherine go through predictable new-couple misunderstandings, she finds supportive friends in an artistically inclined bartender/barista (Rumer Willis) and a retired folk-rock legend (Katey Sagal), whose reasons for taking an interest in Catherine are unconvincing at best. Somewhere in the muddle: She knew Catherine’s parents. Hints of melodramatic intricacies circa 1980 are left undeveloped. Instead we get banal songwriting advice and career-boosting offers — vain attempts to complicate the film’s central faux dilemma, between “selling out” and indie purity.

Representing the sellout front are Catherine’s former bosses, with Finesse Mitchell and Richard Reid exhibiting good Mutt-and-Jeff comic timing as label honcho and right-hand toady. They’re clueless about music — “real music,” anyway, meaning the acoustic confessionals that Catherine composes on her front porch.

Given all the vigilance against artistic compromise, the songs themselves, with Miller, Sagal and Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy showrunner and Sagal’s husband) contributing to the songwriting mix, are pleasant but hardly exceptional. (The closing-credits concert sequence, highlighting Sagal’s singing, is the standout.) Miller has a nice voice, but it’s not enough to make Catherine three-dimensional.

But nothing else in the movie is; its vision of Woodstock is more shiny magazine spread than lived-in rural.

Production companies: Sunrise Pictures, Woodstock Prods., Everest Films
Cast: Allison Miller, James Wolk, Katey Sagal, Rumer Willis, Jason Ritter, Brittany Snow, Anna Anissimova, Ryan Guzman, Finesse Mitchell, Richard Reid, Richard Riehle
Director: Rita Merson
Screenwriter: Rita Merson
Producers: Peter Schafer, Jenny Hinkey, Rita Merson, Anna Anissimova
Executive producers: Joe Dain, Jim Klock, David Guillod
Director of photography: Matthew Irving
Production designer: Alan E. Muraoka
Costume designer: Maya Lieberman
Editor: Cara Silverman
Music: Chris Westlake
Casting: Angela Demo, Barbara J. McCarthy

No rating, 97 minutes