The 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival wrapped up its final day with another edition of its live reads, this time featuring the script for the 80’s cult classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The reading was led by writer-director Eli Roth, who was taking a break from literally swimming with sharks for “Shark After Dark,” the Discovery show he’s hosting for this year’s Shark Week in July. Roth, who has built his directing reputation around taking risks and working under immense pressure, didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge and managed to pull together a cast comprised of friends and frequent collaborators from across the industry.
“There is a type of movie that used to happen, that I think is [now] lost, and that is the character movie,” Roth told the audience in his introductory remarks. Although “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was marketed as a comedy, Roth considers the film a drama: “It is a very, very, very funny as fuck drama.” Even though it’s been more than 30 years since the film’s release, Roth argued, the fact that it still holds up today, is a testament to Cameron Crowe’s writing. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was Crowe’s first screenplay, based upon a book he wrote about what he observed when he went undercover at a high school at age 20 in order to write a piece for Rolling Stone.
Despite some unexpected choices, Roth’s casting turned out to be pretty spot on — with certain performances bordering on uncanny in the way that they evoked the original film. The timbre of Lily Collins (“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”) and Daryl Sabara’s (“Spy Kids”) voices possessed a striking resemblance to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer, the actors who originated the respective roles of Stacy Hamilton and Mark “Rat” Ratner. Meanwhile, Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense”) and Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) inherited the roles of Brad Hamilton and Mike Damone with a degree of self-assurance that imbued the parts with the same authenticity that the original actors brought to them.
It was the goofy Vine celebrity Logan Paul, however, who delivered the standout performance of the evening as the iconic Jeff Spicoli — the part famously originated by Sean Penn. Save for the length of his hair, Paul was as much Spicoli as Penn had once been — down to the lazy, surfer cadence in his voice.
There was less credibility to be found with Courtney Love and Aaron Burns, however, neither of whom left much of an impression with their performances as Mr. Hand and Charles Jefferson. Love was especially tough to buy, as a character struck such an extreme contrast to her fiery public persona; while Burns certainly gave it his best shot as Charles Jefferson, he just didn’t possess the same degree of ferocity that Forest Whitaker brought to what was the actor’s first major role.
The scene descriptions, read by Roth, garnered quite a few laughs. The audience got a pretty good guffaw out of the explicit descriptions of Damone’s climax during sex in the pool house with Stacy, as well as Brad’s fantasy of Linda stripping for him.
While the audience, and sometimes even the cast, managed to laugh in all the right places, the kinship that typically emerges between performers and spectators during live reads never reached its potential. At certain points, it was palpable. Take, for example, the scene where Stacy tries to have sex with Mark. The chemistry between actors Collins and Sabara, along with the uncanny similarity between their voices and those of the original actors, proved absolutely mesmerizing.
More often, however, the sheer scope of the ensemble proved overwhelming for Roth and his cast. In addition to their primary roles, actors also handled multiple bit parts, which proved challenging when it came to cues. And, there were so many bit parts that there were moments when it wasn’t clear which character the actor was playing. Unless, of course, they made notable adjustments to their voice as Lorenza Izzo (“The Green Inferno”) did when she switched between playing Linda Barrett and the waitress at the restaurant where Stacy and Mark go to dinner. For the latter scene, Izzo adopted a Russian-inspired accent that while bizarre, made it absolutely clear she was playing a different character. Contrary to Izzo, Love never made any major modifications to her voice whenever she read for a character besides Mr. Hand.
Audiences, however, are much more forgiving with live reads than they are with films. While they will be satisfied with nothing less of perfection when they go see a film, with a live read they enter into the experience with the knowledge that imperfections are to be expected to emerge during a cold read.
The event was a big gamble for Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell and festival director Stephanie Allain, who chose the live read as a closing night selection rather than the traditional star-studded gala screening. Although the result of the evening may not have been the most memorable live read in recent memory, at least it brought the echoes of a lovable movie to the festival as it contemplates how to increase its quality in 2016.