An innocuous romantic comedy, “Always Woodstock” stars Allison Miller as an aspiring songwriter who retreats from relationships and career dead-ends in Manhattan to the titular upstate burg, where Mr. Right and artistic fulfillment prove all too easy to find. Writer-helmer Rita Merson’s first feature offers a heroine whose whininess is meant to be a lot more endearing than it plays, surmounting obstacles so weak they practically roll over and play dead for her. Even by its genre’s comfort-food standards, this movie feels blandly circumscribed, almost child-proofed, as if any sharper reality or wit might be harmful to the intended audience. It opened in 10 U.S. markets (and Toronto) on Friday, but its modest surface polish and familiar supporting-cast faces will serve it better in ancillary sales.
Orphaned as a child (we never find out how), Miller’s Catherine Brown is a lost little lamb whose lamb-iness isn’t all that charming to begin with, and gets less so as the film goes on. Her passivity has gotten her stuck in a thankless flunky job at a major record label, and her live-in-boyfriend a vacuously vain actor (Jason Ritter) with whom she shares an inexplicably high-end Manhattan loft. After briefly getting promoted to wrangle a nightmarish pop diva (Brittany Snow, just briefly seen), she’s unceremoniously fired, arriving home early to find the b.f. in the act of cheating on her.
These events, plus lack of attention to her own musical aspirations, prompt a move to the town where she was born — and where she still owns her late parents’ house, which for no apparent reason has gone unoccupied, unsold and un-burglarized for 20 years. She finds it somewhat unkempt (complete with “Eeek! A mouse!” moment), but one brief cleaning/prancing-around montage later, it’s habitable. Meanwhile, Catherine gets a local new best friend (Rumer Willis) to supplant the nearly interchangeable old one (Anna Anissimova) left behind, and attracts the inevitable available dreamboat (James Wolk), a doctor who also happens to own the premier local music venue). Her first night in town, she gets drunk, sings karaoke and passes out. This causes him to realize she is “the most beautiful person ever made” and start asking questions like “You wanna feel like you’re floating?”
As if that weren’t enough, it seems Woodstock comes stocked with more (and doubtless nicer) musically inclined hipsters than Brooklyn. Naturally they loooove Mary’s songs, which have titles like “I Am Me Once More” and say things like “You’ve gotta learn to love yourself/Then you can try to love somebody else.” They are so bluntly about her none-too-complicated feelings, it’s rather a surprise her eventual album isn’t entitled “These Are My Feelings.” They also somehow manage to impress an established singer-songwriter (Katey Sagal) who retired over the kind of self-worth issues that define Catherine’s limply cute, Ellen Page-minus-the-edges personality.
Conflict arises when Catherine mistakenly suspects her new beau of double-timing, and risks alienating her new mentor to pursue a shot at mainstream-sellout stardom. Before she makes the obvious right decisions, she blunders around flirting with the wrong ones, then whining, “Everyone hates me!” in a fashion that will provoke empathy only among equally self-absorbed, immature viewers.
Merson has evidently made the movie she wanted to, but there’s no more depth to the heroine she means us to identify with than there is bite to her by-numbers mockery of various showbiz stereotypes. None of the performers rise above the material, but the pic goes down easier than it might have thanks to overall smooth contributions in the tech and design departments. The title on some earlier promotional materials is “There’s Always Woodstock.”