The feature debut of writer/director Rita Merson is mired in convention. Think to yourself about five cinematic tropes that could be found in a romantic dramedy and I’ll bet you at least four are present in Always Woodstock. But that’s not telling you anything you wouldn’t already guess from a plot centering on a young wannabe songwriter stuck in a dead-end, soul sucking job meant to help get a foot into the music industry who finds herself escaping to the country to focus on her dream and get her life in order. The hope when sitting down to watch therefore becomes how Merson uses those tried and true plot devices as well as her cast of recognizable and likeable faces. To her credit the first half flew by despite being goofy beyond measure. The second, however, is insufferable.
Commencing in the Big Apple with a spotlight on Catherine Brown’s (Allison Miller) first world problems, it doesn’t take long for Merson to set the tone thanks to a wonderfully against type performance by Jason Ritter. The usual quiet and sensitive guy to infuse some heart into your primetime melodrama, Ritter’s Garret is introduced as he tries to break the bed underneath himself and Catherine, his fiancé. It’s actually quite the jarring opener considering we’ve just finished hearing the lead talk about how her long dead father used to tell her never sell out and if all else failed Woodstock would never be too far away. Before we can wrap our head around the juxtaposition of sweetly saccharine life lessons and comical sexual escapade, however, Merson throws another wrench into the fold—no-holds-barred absurdity.
This is quite obviously her greatest strength because it’s a hoot to witness Catherine’s ambivalence to the love making alongside Ritter’s heaving sobs and exclamations of thanks for allowing him to be “so close to her”. I laughed out loud at the sheer audacity of going for broke two minutes in on the comedy and genuinely looked forward to seeing how it would continue. Despite the guilty pleasure giggles remaining via Garret working out on the treadmill while mesmerized by his own blue eyes staring back from the digital and an off-the-charts weird cameo from Brittany Snow as a super vapid DJ, we’re suddenly brought back to earth courtesy of the force-fed plot pushing Catherine’s too good for money-whoring folk singer back to the childhood home she “forgot” she owned an hour and a half away.
You know what, though? I still didn’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I most certainly rolled my eyes at her unceremonious departure chock full of Hollywood cliché as well as her drunken return to Woodstock, NY through a rousing karaoke rendition of “Love is a Battlefield” that ends with her on the concrete outside telling a complete stranger in town doctor Noah Bernstein (James Wolk) that she loves him. After all, she had just caught her idiot boyfriend with another woman and been fired for doing pretty much exactly what her bosses asked her to do—this thing was never intended to be some pithy screenplay wowing us with its relationship insight or deep morality message about being yourself no matter what. Always Woodstock is a lark that wears its juvenile, sketch comedy trappings proudly on its sleeve.
I was actually caught up in it for forty minutes before finding myself compelled to look at my watch and see how much time was left. From then on Catherine’s journey towards acknowledging she’s no better than any of the people she silently screams at in frustrated rage becomes a pit of quicksand. Merson amps up the tropes by letting them loose in rapid fire succession, repeating some with multiple characters and ultimately pulling the rug out from beneath any honest emotion she’d built. I was admittedly buying the contrast of big city emptiness and small town heart thanks to Wolk’s endearing charm and Katey Sagal‘s sage advice as local songstress Lee Ann, but for whatever reason Merson decides Catherine should forget everything she’s learned in order to become her direct antithesis overnight.
You can’t introduce an optimistic to a fault goody-two-shoes, make her idealism allow luck to place her exactly where she needs to be, and then out of the blue change her into a self-absorbed hack willing to sell her soul to the devil even though an angel blurted out her position on heaven’s waiting list days earlier. In order to manufacture drama Catherine becomes the stupidest character in the whole film—even dumber than Ritter’s bimbo. Miller’s cutely wide-eyed “aw shucks” girl wrapped in a city slicker package becomes overly severe in her actions, wholly manipulative in her lying by omission, and plain despicable in how easy it is for her to turn on those who love her. She becomes a hypocrite, a sell-out, and an unappreciative leech simultaneously despite everything she’s dreamed staring her in the face.
I’d understand if the story presented such as an abstract—something we know waits that she can’t see. But that’s not the case at all since Catherine verbally shares her knowledge about the opportunity Woodstock is providing twice while begrudgingly accepting a different, darker fate like it’s her only option. Periphery players meant to add laughs return as viable associates and those who’ve given love and advice are transformed into pawns. Worse than ruining the central character’s personality on a whim, however, is the fact Merson so quickly looks to laugh Nega Catherine off as a “whoops” moment of weakness. No, sorry, what she does to the generous people in her life is unforgivable, especially when the successful comedy was removed to let her do it. As a result, any happiness she’s allowed by the end is bull.
Always Woodstock hits VOD and opens in limited release on Friday, November 14th.