I have a confession — “The Big Lebowski” isn’t my favorite Coen Brothers movie. In fact, if I had to make a list of my top five films from the directors, it wouldn’t make the cut. That’s not to say the picture isn’t uniquely entertaining and laugh out loud hilarious, but I’d argue “The Big Lebowski” is one of the more unshapely films from the Coens. While I get the structure and pace is made to move at The Dude’s ambling speed, I find the film just a touch too long, with a few too many detours, and not all of them are worth taking. These criticisms about the stoner flick were underscored by Jason Reitman’s Live Read of the script at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal last night. However, the event also made crystal clear the genius of the Coens script, allowing a new venue for the movie’s bounty of great lines and moments to shine in a whole new light.
Having done this for a few years now, Reitman seems to have a sixth sense for casting, and makes some inspired choices here. While Michael Fassbender (The Dude) and Jennifer Lawrence (Maude Lebowski) were the big A-list names of the ensemble (and more on them in a moment), it was Mae Whitman who arguably stole the show. She was terrifically squeaky taking on Steve Buscemi’s Donny, switched perfectly to nihilist Kieffer (played by Flea in the film), and shined in smaller parts, including bowler Smokey. Surprise guest Dennis Quaid raged with relish as The Big Lebowski (nailing “the god damn plane has crashed into the mountain!” line earning perhaps some of the biggest cheers of the night), Patton Oswalt jumped into the part of Walter Sobchak with pure joy, and Mike Judge took the crown for best Sam Elliott impersonation ever with his uncanny turn as The Stranger. Rounding things out were Martin Starr as Jesus Quintana, Olivia Munn as Bunny, and T.J. Miller as Brandt (with his take on the character’s nervous laughter turning into genuine laughs from the audience).
The presentation of the live read is quite simple. The cast sits on stage with the scripts in front of them, while Reitman leads the proceedings, moving things along reading the stage directions and scene descriptions. Meanwhile, above them all, a screen shows various still images of locations from the movie — wisely not including pictures of the original cast members, so as not to break the spell of these new incarnations — to help the audience know where they are in the story at all times. However, the energy all rests on the cast’s shoulders, and in the case of “The Big Lebowski,” and as told by the wide grins on their faces, they eagerly dove into the material.
While everyone arrived on stage comfortably dressed (or in the case of Lawrence, fabulously dressed), it was only Fassbender who brought his method approach for this one-off event. He sat down dressed in shorts and a bulky sweater, chain smoking to help him settle into The Dude’s perma-daze, and carrying a plastic cup in one hand, but lamenting to the audience the venue wasn’t able to provide him with a White Russian. And yet, for all his surface preparation, Fassbender was arguably the weakest link of the performance. It took him a while to find his groove as The Dude, and even then, his reading, while enthusiastic, was often inconsistent, with some of the character’s most treasured lines not landing as they should. It wasn’t quite a disappointment, but it was certainly underwhelming. That said, he had the biggest challenge. In a movie filled with performances so singularly defined by the actors who inhabited the roles, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude presents the biggest shoes to fill. (The second biggest is Jesus, and Starr did the best he could in the big shadow cast by John Turturro). As for Lawrence, she was spot on as Maude, though her role is actually much smaller than you might remember. And taking on none of the additional smaller roles, she was the biggest name on stage, with the least amount to do, but when it was her time to perform, she did the part solid justice, with the same over-educated enunciation Julianne Moore brought to her performance.
Part of the live read experience is to allow an audience to engage in a new appreciation for the words on the page of classic scripts, but Reitman did make room for a little fun. During the critical scene when The Dude and Walter leave Larry’s house, Oswalt yelled the, “This is what happens, when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” line before turning to Reitman and asking him if he could deliver the rest of the scene using the TV edit. With permission granted, Oswalt continued, screaming with great enthusiasm, “This is what happens, when you meet a stranger in the alps!” And of course, any live event has a chance for things to go off the rails, and they did briefly, when Munn accidentally read Maude’s first lines of dialogues. It was a moment made doubly awkward because Lawrence had been waiting a considerable time to finally jump into the mix, and so too was the audience eager to hear the star finally join the fun. However, as Munn noted, Maude’s lines were highlighted on her script pages and she was too caught up in the flow to notice the error, but the hiccup caused some (pleasant) disarray on stage and it took Reitman a few moments to rein everyone back in and get the reading back on track.
Hearing “The Big Lebowski” read out loud, even with my issues with the film, I gained a new respect for just how preposterously and wonderfully calibrated this wild tale really is. A Chandler-esque mystery, glancing against generational disconnect between the clashing ideals of the ‘60s and ‘70s (a theme that has more resonance on the page perhaps than in the movie) with a gallery of truly memorable characters, without a dud in the bunch, “The Big Lebowski” screenplay is close to a masterpiece. However, in both the movie and live read, the momentum crawls during the lengthy dream sequences, and again, while the individual scenes are often great, collected as an entire story, there is something about them that doesn’t quite hang together as a whole.
However, getting lost in the specifics of the script’s construction will be something only deeper movie heads will likely do. Presented as a night to enjoy a treasured film in a whole new way, the Live Read experience is undeniably big fun, with equally big, belly laughs. From afar, one might wonder what the point is of watching an ensemble read a script of a movie you’ve already seen, and in the case of “The Big Lebowski,” know by heart. However, as my first Live Read, you realize there’s a whole other perspective to be gained from this kind of event, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous… [A]