Monday, April 2, 2012

On The Scene - Jason Reitman Live Read of The Big Lebowski

Last night marked the final installment of what has in six quick months become a highly popular Los Angeles cultural touchstone, Jason Reitman's Live Series. Much to the delight of everyone in attendance, curator Elvis Mitchell announced right before the performance began that the Live Series would return in October with six brand new scripts. Reitman himself apologized for his "day job" that would keep him occupied during the summer, but expressed great enthusiasm about returning later in the year. Hell. Effing. Yes. This was easily the most packed of the six Live Reads, with a stand by line circling around the Wilshire LACMA entrance, triple the size I've seen in the past.

Both Reitman and Mitchell decided that the final script of the first series should be a crowd pleaser, something overlooked originally by critics, but that maintained a cult status in years to come specifically because of its strong script, or as Mitchell put it, a film "ignored by the mainstream, but still found a way into our hearts...and bongs as the case may be." Naturally, the film that ended up being chosen was the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, which was released fourteen years ago this month. The film has over 40 characters so presenting it as a reading with only nine actors was no easy task. But, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but if it's true it's true - this Read was even better than the last one. Which was leagues better than the last one. Oh Reitman and your learning and applying your learning! 

The cast, sitting from house right to house left was as follows: Lebowski (originated by David Huddleston) : Jason Alexander, Brandt (originated by Philip Seymour Hoffman) : Fred Savage, Jesus (originated by John Tuturro)/Jackie Treehorn/one of the Germans/many more : Nick Kroll, Bunny (originated by Tara Reid)/waitress/Pilar/German woman: Catherine Reitman, Donny (originated by Steve Buscemi)/Dieter/more: Hank Azaria, The Dude (originated by Jeff Bridges) : Seth Rogen, Walter (originated by John Goodman) : Rainn Wilson, Maude (originated by Julianne Moore): Christina Hendricks, and The Stranger (originated by Sam Elliot): Sam effing Elliott, who got a standing ovation just for walking on stage. Because. Sam. Effing. Elliott. Reading. The Stranger. 

Where to even begin? Shampoo was a fine introduction, Reservoir Dogs was a raucous good time, but The Big Lebowski was in a league of its own. There was a level of professionalism and preparation among the actors that was unlike anything I'd seen yet, definitely the tightest script read of the three I've seen. Clearly each person on stage took this INCREDIBLY seriously and went to great pains to make sure he or she could deliver. Seth Rogen (who I kind of wished was wearing a bathrobe) and Rainn Wilson were so pitch perfect, I was not alone in thinking that if the movie had been made today, with those two actors in the roles, it would have worked just as well. It was as if Seth Rogen's stoner chill meets over the top exasperation and Rainn Wilson's comical intensity were crafted by the universe to play The Dude and Walter. They did not miss a word. They did not miss a moment. There was specificity, tactic changes, appropriate tonal shifts, I was FLOORED by what these guys were doing, and they made it look so easy. Word to the wise - this is *not* easy and it's rare to get through an entire live reading with a truthful, full fledged performance, without screwing up even once. And Rogen's rolled papers that he "smoked" from as a prop whenever the script called for it? Love.

More after the jump

A huge part of this screenplay, as evidenced by, you know, just hearing the script read aloud, are the many overlaps in dialogue. So much of this film is high energy, with a lot happening at once, a lot of thoughts being thrown out, digested, and thrown back, and this cast of actors managed to handle the acrobatic act that tossing these lines back and forth was with a graceful expertise, as if they'd spent weeks rehearsing. Especially with the practically never-ending barrage of laughter coming from the audience, you'd expect to miss a line or two, but the actors had the timing nailed, simultaneously listening to each other and the audience, never missing a beat. The stage directions too were extremely particular, inherently visual and exceedingly clever, all Coen Brothers traits. Writers that take as much joy in their descriptions as they do their dialogue always stand out in situations like this, much like Tarantino's did last month. A favorite of mine came in the last scene of the movie - "We've never actually seen them bowl before - they're quite good." A simple stage direction, something to provide context, something that may not even be *noticed* by the audience in the film, but when read aloud by Reitman, brought the house down.

This is part of what makes these Live Reads such wonderful experiences and explain why people spent the day in line in order to attend. We all know The Big Lebowski is a great movie. We all understand that. But I personally, for example, haven't seen it since high school. I remembered loving it, but not why I loved it. And I feel so fortunate to have been reintroduced to it via a medium like this, where everything is stripped away but words and actors. It makes it undeniably clear when a script stands on its own. In fact, some folks I talked to better understood the plot of the movie hearing it in a reading, then they did watching it as a film. Because of the number of expensive, involved and important set pieces and incidents, The Big Lebowski would be very difficult to actually stage, which is why getting to see actors interact with each other with such a solid script, *live* was such a once in a lifetime treat treat. The words lend themselves so well to that kind of presentation, it was practically an out of body experience. 

But let's get into some specifics, shall we? I've already covered how Wilson and Rogen are clearly the second coming of Walter and The Dude, but what about everyone else? From left to right? Sam Elliot, reprising his role, as Fred Savage did for the Princess Bride, nailed it. Even when he messed up a word, his save was hilarious, referencing the last time he performed it being 15 years ago and giggling along with us. I mean, his voice! He framed the evening with such a rough and tumble cowboy gravitas, it makes you wonder what the film or the Live Read would have done without him. Christina Hendricks easily infused Maude with her commanding sensuality, projecting equal parts strength and sexuality. Oh, and also happened to look distractingly gorgeous. I sensed that a part of her was nervous, performing one of the more direct, expository roles in a cast of strange characters played by comedic actors, but she still managed to hold her own. 

Hank Azaria did a simple and effective Donny, and brought the big guns out for the smaller roles which required at least four different kinds of accents. One of his best moments came towards the beginning of the evening when Reitman realized he forgot to assign George Bush (speaking on the television) to someone, so Azaria stepped in with a spot on impression. Catherine Reitman, who I couldn't BELIEVE was the same Catherine Reitman who creeped me out in the best way possible on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (how did I not put together that they were related?!) kicked serious ass as Bunny Lebowski, but it was her moment with Azaria as the Germans ordering Lindenberry pancakes, stepping into the Aimee Mann role, that had Seth Rogen losing his mind with laughter. This. Girl. Is. Hilarious. 

Nick Kroll keeps proving to me more and more that is a lot more talented than I ever gave him credit for, being as believable as a cowardly Nihilist, as he was a creepy bowler pedophile who has no qualms about threatening to stick things up people's behinds, as he was the smooth Jackie Treehorn. His eyes when he got into Jesus mode were out of control. Kroll strikes me as one of those actors who is either highly trained or takes the craft so seriously that it seems as though he was. Fred Savage was perhaps the most unexpectedly wonderful of the night. He stepped in almost literally last minute to replace Patton Oswalt (who seriously must have had an emergency, because after being in most, if not all, of the other Live Reads, I can't imagine he would miss this one for anything less), but rather than disappointing, he stepped up to the plate and then some, crafting at least five different characters, none of which seemed like they were being played by the same guy. He stood out most as Brandt, as if channeling Phil Hoffman himself, and inspired random accolades from the audience at multiple points. 

Last, but most definitely in no universe least was Jason Alexander. Alexander was the one with the most theater experience on the stage, and boy did it show, with not a single flub or drop in energy to be found. There was such an organic build to the role of the Big Lebowski, and clearly some focused character work, mixed with a healthy dose of over the top gesticulation. Everything Alexander did worked in spades. The audience practically leapt to their feet after his first scene alone. 

Everytime I see one of these things, I wish so bad that I could have called every actor friend I have and brought them along. I always find them to be such a treat, both for me as a fan of film, and as a gal with a drama degree from NYU. Though not something I pursue any longer, I still appreciate the intricacies that go into perfecting work like this and was filled with such great respect watching each of these actors work last night.

When I tweeted about how great  the Live Read was last night, a good friend of mine from wanted to know why these events mattered so much out here, what was it about them that made anyone care? To me, the answer is simple. Reading a script out loud directly showcases how good a script is. No bells, no whistles, no reliance on anything else. A Live Read, like a table read, shows a piece of work and its most vulnerable, its most open to criticism - there is nothing to hide behind. Unlike a table read, these scripts are already locked, and have been for some time. But that same kind of chemistry and spontaneity is still at play, which makes the happenings on stage utterly riveting. These performances force us to consider what makes a good script, and frankly, what makes a good performance. Why is it that some actors can nail this and some can't? Why can some get through two hours without flubbing a word and others can barely get through a paragraph? Moreso than either Shampoo or Reservoir Dogs, this read of The Big Lebowski brought a palpable new love and respect of the source material for me. I'm dying to watch the movie again. I mean, if Seth Rogen and Rain Wilson made me laugh with every single line they said (HOW WAS IT NOT WRITTEN FOR THESE TWO SPECIFICALLY IT DOESNT EVEN MAKE SENSE BECAUSE THEY WERE SO PERFECT), holy crap, I can't WAIT to re-watch this with the two definitive geniuses that originated the roles.

Even beyond that, because the Reads aren't allowed to be filmed, they are truly a one time only experience, so everyone in the room shares a special bond from the get go. It's like we all become a little community, brought together by our desire to see this so bad, that some of us bought Film Independent memberships and pressed refresh until tickets became available every month, or stopped at nothing to find the press contact to request press tickets, or waited in line for hours to make it in from the stand by line. Once inside, we were anticipating our favorite lines, giving standing ovations for the best moments (something that might be awkward in a movie theater), and afterwards getting our Gallery 1988 art prints signed by Reitman afterwards if we have the guts and collectively drinking White Russians. These evenings have become magical across the board and I can't imagine ever missing one again.

Mark your calendars now folks, and get ready to buy Film Independent for LACMA film club memberships later in the year because I am TELLING YOU, you do not want to miss these when they return. These experiences are so special, so singular, so strange and wonderful, I can't see their novelty ever wearing off, or the art they promote ever growing stale. If it weren't for my undying love of Young Adult, I might be so inclined to say this series is the best thing Jason Reitman has ever done. You have seven months to procure a way to get tickets. 

Moments of Note:
-Reitman describing Lebowski as a "fat, 60ish man" and Jason Alexander giving a face that said both "hey! watch it!" and "but you're kind of right….", much to audiences' enjoyment
-Nick Kroll and Hank Azaria subsequently losing it during Alexander's first scene as Lebowski
-Catherine Reitman professing as Bunny that she would suck the Dude's "c***" for 1000 dollars, prompting Jason Reitman to interject, "Sorry mom, sorry dad!"
-Seth Rogen uncontrollably giggling after Kroll's introduction as Jesus and especially Walter's line immediately flowing - "8 year olds, Dude."
-Whenever introducing the Stranger in the script, both the voice and the character itself, the stage directions reading the description were always followed by "Sam Elliot, perhaps." Perfect.
-Catherine Reitman continuing to cause Rogen to lose his shit, not only with Lindinberry pancakes, but with "No, no, he has health problems" during the confronting Larry scene
-Wilson's read of Walter's "300 years of tradition…." spiel which led to UPROARIOUS applause from the audience. Lots of Jews in the house? I mean, I know I am. And I applauded. So just a guess.
-As soon as Reitman read "Fade to black. The end," the audience all jumped to their feet, in the longest standing ovation I have yet to witness at a Live Event, capped with Elvis Mitchell announcing that Reitman has been named the first ever Artist in Residence of the Bing Theater at LACMA. Reitman had no idea that announcement was coming and was genuinely surprised and touched. 
-At the LACMA bar after the event, the bartender did not stop making White Russians for at least twenty minutes straight. 


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