(Photo credits: Alexandra Wyman, WireImage, courtesy of Film Independent.)
I've been going to Jason Reitman's Live Reads at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (hosted by Film Independent) for a while now - you can read my reviews of The Princess Bride and Reservoir Dogs if you wish - and they've been great. The Princess Bride was a joy, and Reservoir Dogs took on a new meaning when, during Black History Month, Reitman recast Tarantino's classic with an all-black cast. But with tonight's event, I believe Reitman hit that state of nirvana he's been hoping for since he began this series: that perfect blend of the perfect actors reading the perfect script in the perfect way, and the Live Read has never been better.
This was the last event of the season, until Reitman finishes with his "f*cking day job" filming his next movie and returns for more in October. So perhaps it was a feeling of finality that pushed everyone to their limits, but whatever it was, it affected all of the actors equally. In previous events, there have been the occasional...I don't want to call them "weak links," but if I'm being harsh, that's what I'd call them, and tonight, there was no weak link to be found. Everyone was on point, there were almost no missed cues or botched lines, and the cast fit so well with these characters that for the first time in this series, I could truly imagine the original movie being replaced with this cast and - dare I say it - that film would have been just as good, if not better, than the original.
First, the cast. Jason Alexander played the wheelchair-bound Mr. Lebowski; Brandt, originated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was played to utter perfection by Fred Savage; Live Read staple Nick Kroll read the parts of Jesus Quintana, Jackie Treehorn, and more; Bunny Lebowski, originated by Tara Reid, was read by Jason Reitman's sister, Catherine (who appears occasionally on "It's Always Sunny"); Hank Azaria took over for Steve Buscemi in the role of Donny; Julianne Moore's Maude Lebowski was played by Christina Hendricks; Rainn Wilson was magnificent as John Goodman's Walter Sobchak; the iconic role of The Dude, originated by Jeff Bridges, went to the perfectly cast Seth Rogen; and finally, the role of The Stranger, originated by Sam Elliott, was played by...Sam Elliott.
Listening to these fantastic actors fly through the dense dialogue of the Coen Brothers' phenomenal neo-noir somehow did the unexpected: it made the story itself more clear. Robbed of the visuals and only concentrating on the words on the page, I got a level of enjoyment I've never received watching the film version of this story; everything fell into place, and not only did the script's highlights become more evident, but the brilliance of the screenplay itself shone through brighter than the film version has ever done for me.
In previous installments, it's been easy for me to pick a favorite performance. Not this time - it's impossible for me to convey how excellent these actors were tonight, which I guess is part of Reitman's whole "no video taping" policy: he wants to create something special for one night only, never to be reproduced. Well, he and his cast did that tonight in spades. Rainn Wilson may not carry the physical presence of John Goodman, but moment after moment, Wilson's performance rivaled Goodman's in every other way. He was intense, confident, loud, never wavered, never missed a line, and downright hilarious because, like Goodman, he played it straight the entire time. And I can't tell you how impressed I was at Seth Rogen's ability to breathe his own life into The Dude after Bridges created the definitive version of that character. Rogen's Dude was a bit faster with his frustration, like his interpretation of the character always smoked juuuuuust a little bit less weed than Bridges' version.
Fred Savage was the biggest surprise of the night for me, imitating Seymour Hoffman's Brandt so brilliantly that if you looked away for a second, you might have thought PSH was actually in the room. Hendrick's drawling Maude mirrored Moore's in all the right ways, and Catherine's lines as Bunny - few though they were - drew laughs from the crowd. Where the hell did Jason Alexander come from as Mr. Lebowski? His angry bellowing immediately conjured memories of his own iconic character, George Costanza, and that man is perhaps the best there ever was or will be at playing "flustered." Kroll and Azaria kept things light and - along with Savage - slipped into multiple roles throughout the evening, including the infamous Nihilists which had everyone cracking up. And Sam Elliott was just as awesome as you'd think - in fact, he could barely get through his opening lines because everyone broke out into spontaneous applause at hearing that amazing bass voice of his. "This is gonna be a long night," he mumbled as he smiled at the crowd, Elliott's own badass way of acknowledging our appreciation.
The whole evening just worked, an effortless reading of an excellent piece of writing by some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The character dynamics were flawless, the reaction times were spot-on, and - perhaps most importantly for an event like this - everyone was clearly enjoying themselves on stage, and that enthusiasm translated to the crowd. Jason Reitman created something truly special tonight, and we can only hope that future events can live up to this staggeringly sublime confluence of actors and script when he returns again in October.