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MOVIE REVIEW: "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding" not Fonda's or anyone's best work

PEACE, LOVE AND MISUNDERSTANDING

(PG-13)

1 star out of 4

Existing more or less as a quasi-vanity project that allows lead Jane Fonda to revisit her late 1960s past, "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding" is actually the antithesis of that groundbreaking, freewheeling era. Calculating, formulaic, badly acted and crushingly unfunny (except when it's trying to be serious), "PLAM" ranks alongside Fonda's other 21st century stabs at a comeback ("Monster-in-Law," "Georgia Rule") as one of the worst movies of her otherwise impressive career. This is not how a two-time Oscar winner should spend her twilight years.

Sporting a long, curly, salt-and-pepper wig and minimal makeup, Fonda stars as Grace, a resident of (surprise) Woodstock, N.Y., who is still behaving as if it's still 1969. She lives on a sprawling, Walden-like farm that she sustains with minimal sales of bad art and maximum sales of grow-light basement marijuana. Also present on Grace's spread are chickens that have free rein of her home and what looks like the "Partridge Family" tour bus housing unwanted vegetation in her front yard.

Offering up the brash and clanging alleged dramatic friction to Grace's hippie-drippy liberal positive vibes is Diane (Catherine Keener), her ultra-conservative, morose, tightly-wound, brownstone-dwelling lawyer daughter who has just been given her walking papers by a soon-to-be ex-husband (Kyle McLaughlin).

For no reason other than to provide the basis for a weak plot, Diane bolts from NYC with her bookish but hot daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and the ultra-geek budding filmmaking son Jake (Nat Wolff). Zoe can't smile or put down Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Jake can't stop being a nerd and hand-camming anything and everything in sight.

Diane hasn't seen Grace in 20 years and the time spent apart has done little to prod the former into forgiving the latter for whatever it is she may have done. Diane's choice to go from one bad situation to another makes no sense while dragging her kids along to soak up all the bad vibes makes her look like a masochist and a sadist.

Literally within minutes of arriving in Woodstock, Diane and her kids are matched-up with potential new love interests. All of them are conveniently laid-out during the same three-minute antiwar protest scene where Grace and her brethren spout, bellow and regurgitate their slightly agitated peacenik slogans.

When not waxing rhapsodic about the good ol' days where she bedded down countless classic rock stars, Grace offers up oh-so-tiny pearls of wisdom that are as brief and deep as what you might find in fortune cookies. Ever the pro, Fonda makes it all sound good, but like everything else in the film, it is drenched with canned insincerity and hackneyed authenticity.

Even in a good movie -- and she's done quite a few -- Keener has a tendency to appear put-upon, impatient and something of a stick-in-the-mud; but she does it well and always plays it for dry laughs. Doing that here -- with this trite and lightweight material -- just makes her character come off as somebody no one would ever want to know. It's easy to understand that when she tells her children that she's getting divorced, Jake replies with "Great -- it's about time."

Of all the relationships going on here and there, the one between Zoe and hunky local butcher Cole (Chace Crawford) is the only one offering anything interesting. She swoons over his blue eyes, lantern jaw and facial stubble but can't quite get past what he does for a living. They also share a scene that will likely send the folks over at PETA into a manic tizzy.

For director Bruce Beresford "PLAM" is light years away from his glory days of "Driving Miss Daisy," "Breaker Morant" and "Tender Mercies." The once-vital Australian has always exhibited a soft touch for character and story, but way back when, he did so with grace and authority. Here, Beresford handles the material with clumsy banality but, in all fairness, with a screenplay that acts as nothing more than an overlong sitcom pilot, there's little anything anyone could have done with it. (IFC)