With a growing audience of devoted cinephiles over the past few years, it seems there are few film-related events more beloved than Jason Reitman‘s Live Reads. The set-up is simple: Reitman selects a classic screenplay of his choosing to be read by new actors in front of a live audience with Reitman himself reading the stage direction. The only other accompaniment to the performances is a projection behind the performers featuring a frame of the film (digitally removing the actors) to set the scene and usually some music before and after the show begins. Sometimes the casting aims to turn the material on its head—”Reservoir Dogs” with an all-African American cast or “Glengary Glen Ross” with an ensemble of women—and sometimes it’s more straightforward. So why have these readings become such a hot ticket? Well, for starters, the events (held typically at the LACMA in Los Angeles) are not recorded and are never repeated and at their best, they force the audience to think about the film in a new way. But the real secret to their success—like the films themselves—is that it usually comes down to the casting.
Last year for the first time, Reitman brought the series outside of its home at the LACMA in Los Angeles first for a staging of “The Apartment” in New York, and at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, he recruited Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks for a reading of “American Beauty,” which had premiered in Toronto back in 1999. For this year’s TIFF Live Read, he selected another film that made its debut at the festival back in the ’90s, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights.” This selection was met with a wave of joy as fans began to speculate on who might be playing who—and George Clooney as Jack Horner would’ve been perfect—but as Reitman unveiled his cast throughout the week, they seemed anything but obvious choices. Jesse Eisenberg as Dirk Diggler, Josh Brolin as Jack Horner, Dane Cook as Reed Rothchild, Olivia Wilde as Amber Waves, Dakota Fanning as Rollergirl, Jason Sudeikis as Buck Swope, Scott Thompson (“Kids In The Hall“) as The Colonel, Jordan Hayes (“House At The End Of The Street“) as Jessie St Vincent/Becky Barnett, Jarod Einsohn (“Project X“) as Todd Parker and Marc-Andre Grondin (“Goon“) as Scotty J./Little Bill.
Twelve hundred people packed the Ryerson Theatre Friday night for what was reportedly one of the hottest tickets at the festival. A little after 6 p.m., Reitman appeared onstage telling the adoring crowd, “This is my favorite thing.” Ironic perhaps that his latest film also premiered at the fest but it was clear that he really loves doing these. First, Reitman told us about his admiration for “Boogie Nights,” saying that as a teenager that the first time he saw the film, “it blew [his] fucking mind.” Anyone around Reitman’s age will remember what a transformative experience seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s San Fernando Valley epic for the first time could be for a budding cinephile, but Reitman had a slightly different experience than the rest of us. His first viewing had been a test screening of the film, so he saw an earlier cut featuring a few excised scenes (and one crucial one in particular) that he grew fond of. For this reason he decided to include those for this reading. “PTA, take note, I think you should have put this back,” he joked.
He then introduced his cast and they were off. Reitman began by breathlessly reading the stage direction, describing the jaw-dropping tracking shot that opens the film and introduces us to our entire cast of characters in the film. (Though admittedly, each character only speaking a line or two of chit chat without the sweeping camera movements that accompany them certainly loses a little something in the translation.) Dane Cook—slated for Reed Rothchild but filling in on a few minor characters as many of the supporting cast did—started off doing a dead-on Luis Guzman impersonation as Maurice, which was a bit worrisome, but soon the cast fell into a groove and started to make the material mostly their own.
Prior to the event, it was hard to picture the brainy Eisenberg as Dirk Diggler since he usually projects such confidence that runs entirely counter to the naivety Mark Wahlberg brought to the role. But Eisenberg is a great actor and even in this setting managed to give a strong performance even if he wasn’t always a fit for how the character is on the page. His performance ranged from stammering Woody Allen-esque delivery during Dirk’s speech at the Adult Film Awards to hyper-Zuckerberg overdrive during Dirk’s coked out scenes. Doing his rendition of “You’ve Got The Touch” was the only time he seemed a little half-hearted, but he came back strong for “Feel My Heat,” though it’s worth noting that he looked a little embarrassed afterwards. But his standout moment was Dirk’s freakout at Jack’s house which gave a glimpse into the intensity and focus you can imagine that Leonardo DiCaprio might’ve brought to the role had he been cast (as Anderson had originally intended) instead of the earnestness that Wahlberg had in spades.
As for the rest of the cast, most of the main players were strong if not entirely distinctive. Brolin lacked the warmth that Burt Reynolds brought to Jack Horner but his gruffer incarnation still worked for the most part. Wilde is clearly a big fan of the material—she nails Julianne Moore‘s pronunciation of “ka-rah-tay” which elicited a big laugh from Reitman—and yes, it was definitely a little weird seeing Fanning (who was 3 when the film was released) playing Rollergirl, but she acquitted herself pretty well too. Marc-Andre Grondin, who played Scotty J. and Little Bill was a bit underwhelming but perhaps just because Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy‘s shoes were just too big to fill for a mostly unknown actor. Scott Thompson drew big laughs for playing the female judge with a woman’s voice (something that came naturally to the former “Kids In The Hall” vet) in one of the many supporting characters he lent a voice to, but other than that gender swap things went more or less as expected.
As far as the script itself, there were small differences that any superfan would spot: Becky Barnett is included in the final “God Only Knows” montage working at a retirement home, there were more title cards and a few minor alterations there as well (“Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” was simply “One Last Thing”) and originally REO Speedwagon “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” was slated instead of Rick Springfield‘s “Jessie’s Girl.” The most crucial change to the structure was the one that Reitman had described in the intro: a scene that took place towards the very end of the film after the shootout at Rashid’s.
In this version of the script, after Dirk’s car runs out of gas and rolls his car down the hill, he realizes he’s in his old neighborhood in front of his parents house. He goes to the door and it’s answered by his old girlfriend Sheryl Lynn (played in the film by Laurel Holloman), who is married now with a baby in tow. He asks where his parents are and she invites Dirk into the house to tell him that his parents died in a car accident last May. The script then features a quick cutaway to the crash revealing a drunk driver responsible for the accident. Dirk breaks down crying and yelling, “I want my mother!”
Though it’d be fascinating to see the scene—curiously it’s not included on any DVD/Blu-ray—it is certainly one better left on the cutting room floor. Despite Reitman’s fondness for it, it hit the “you can’t go home again” metaphor on the head perhaps a bit too directly, which may just illustrate the difference between the two filmmakers. Anderson felt it was better left unsaid and Reitman prefers to say it. The scene ends with Sheryl Lynn telling Dirk that she has all of his pornos and she’s proud of him.
The entire reading ran a little over 2 hours (which was lightning fast considering the film is around 2 1/2 hours) but over the course of the evening it became clear that this was not an easy one for adaptation. There are so many short scenes, cuts, camera moves, montages and little bits of improv that get lost sticking directly to what’s written on the page. (Goodbye “I’m a fucking idiot” and “You’re not the king of Dirk!”) But if anything, the reading made it clear just how much Anderson really brings to the table as a filmmaker. Last year, this writer caught Reitman’s NYC staging of “The Apartment,” which through smart casting revealed the potential of these Live Reads. The cast there delivered something that resembled the original but whose performances stood on their own. As a live reading, “Boogie Nights” was a fun tribute to the modern classic that couldn’t quite capture the magic of the real thing. [B-]