Always Woodstock, directed by first-time feature writer-director Rita Merson, is a prime example of why romantic comedies get a bum rap. The film hits the trifecta of what not to do when crafting a story about relationships: it spotlights cookie-cutter characters, includes unsurprising plot points and features banal dialogue. As a “bonus,” Always Woodstock also has a musical element: mediocre pop-folk tunes sung passably by the lead character, a struggling singer-songwriter.
Catherine Brown’s (Allison Miller) life implodes within the film’s first 15 minutes. She’s been forced to put her own music on hold while managing a New York record label’s most difficult pop diva (Brittany Snow). On the same day she’s fired by her clownish bosses over a misunderstanding with the pop star, she comes home early to find her actor fiancé (Jason Ritter) in the shower with his dialect coach. Despite the setup, Snow has little more than a cameo role, and Ritter only pops in on occasion to provide campy moments as a self-absorbed actor.
The film explores the often-tread quarter-life crisis, but instead of drawing on elements from more successful films like Reality Bites, Frances Ha, Drinking Buddies or even this year’s musically inspired Begin Again, Merson relies on hackneyed themes in her script, and Miller overcompensates, trying too hard to become the quirky, city girl-turned-country hipster.
Catherine, orphaned at a young age, moves back to her family’s home in Woodstock to take time for herself and her music. During a night out, she meets handsome doctor Noah (James Wolk, Mad Men’s Bob Benson), who coincidentally owns a renowned music venue and recording studio that belonged to his late mother. Wolk isn’t given much to do except moon at Miller with puppy dog eyes. His character is a little too perfect: he’s rich, a gentleman and throws great dinner parties, proven by the copious amounts of kale salad and red wine served to his guests. Despite the fairytale elements, from flirty stares to long walks at night and stargazing on covered bridge rooftops, there’s no chemistry between the actors or their respective characters. We simply don’t buy that Catherine and Noah are falling madly in love.
Another motif—finding oneself in the Woods(stock)—doesn’t fare much better. Cool bartender/barista Emily (Rumer Willis) offers Catherine relationship advice and introduces her to local music legend Lee Ann (Katey Sagal). It turns out Lee Ann knew Catherine’s parents, and while Sagal’s performance hints at more of a backstory, Merson’s script fails to explore it any further. Instead, the film focuses on Lee Ann as she mentors the young musician. The following lyrics indicate the depth of Catherine’s songs: “Follow the river to the sea / because that’s where you’re supposed to be.” The dialogue is likewise subpar—some lines are just nails-to-chalkboard cringeworthy. Take the mantra of Catherine’s father: “Never sell out. Always put love first. There’s always Woodstock.”
During the film’s last third, Catherine has a startling Jekyll-and-Hyde shift. Her actions are wildly uncharacteristic and destroy any vestiges of sympathy that the other characters—and audience—may have had for her millennial quandary. Catherine’s best friend in New York calls her out for being too self-absorbed and divulges that she’s had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy alone. Catherine responds, “I hate your baby!”
Just when we thought the characters’ exchanges couldn’t get much worse, Catherine tries to woo Noah back with the line, “I want to have forever sex with you!” The director’s choices in this anticlimactic scene further highlight the film’s vapidity. Shots include a waning sun, a country road, characters twirling in the distance and, finally, an upward tilt through the trees, toward the sky.
Just like its lead character, the film can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up. There are attempts at slapstick, Nicholas Sparks melodrama and John Carney-lite musicality, but it stumbles on all fronts. If there’s one saving grace in Always Woodstock, it’s watching how much a seasoned actor like Katey Sagal can do with so little. Her poise, stillness and ability to add a dose of realism to an otherwise trifling film is impressive.
Director: Rita Merson
Writer: Rita Merson
Starring: Allison Miller, James Wolk, Katey Sagal, Rumer Willis, Jason Ritter, Anna Anissimova, Brittany Snow and Ryan Guzman
Release Date: Opens in theaters in Los Angeles, New York and other select cities, and VOD and digital platforms on Nov. 14, 2014.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.