In a day and age where essentially everything is documented and instant gratification has become a staple, there’s something quite special about the intimacy of Jason Reitman’s series of Live Reads. After having done forty readings of an excellent variety of scripts over the past five years, it only felt appropriate that Reitman would conclude this particular season with one much closer to his heart: “Thank You For Smoking,” his much-celebrated first feature film that starred the likes of Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes and J.K. Simmons. Besides, what better way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his debut film than with an intimate, yet boisterous reimagining?
As the festivities began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last night, things were off to a surprisingly emotional start after Film Independent curator and Live Read co-creator Elvis Mitchell introduced Reitman himself onto the stage. “I love being in a room filled with movie fans,” he said before reminiscing over the previous Live Reads, citing memorable portrayals by an always impressive roster of actors. “It is very hard for me to say tonight that this is going to be the last one,” Reitman sadly announced. As the crowd responded with a mutual sadness and disappointment, he said in return, “I have to make movies, guys.”
Emotional and hug-filled goodbyes aside, there was still much to celebrate as the night continued. A few days leading up to the event, Entertainment Weekly announced the cast that would be breathing new life into Reitman’s own script, raising the anticipation for what was going to surely be an evening to remember. On the heels of his success from “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” and his mesmerizing portrayal of Johnnie Cochran, Courtney B. Vance would take the place of Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the despicable-but-charming lobbyist for Big Tobacco.
Joining him would be Mae Whitman as his son Jack, Rhea Seehorn as Polly Bailey, Bill Simmons as Sen. Finistirre, Ashley Greene as Heather Holloway, Tommy Dewey as Jeff Megall and Ron Livingston as BR. Patton Oswalt was previously announced to play Bobby Jay Bliss, but after a last-minute switcheroo, Josh Gad joined the gang in his place. And, of course, as these Live Reads thrive on the element of surprise and spontaneity, to round out the already-stacked cast, Tim Allen excitedly walked onto the stage as the night’s surprise guest.
Leading the strong pack of actors was the incredible Vance, whose entrance alone sent the crowd into roaring applause and a level of excitement that would not let up throughout the night. Vance proved to be a perfect fit for the role of Nick Naylor, nailing the biting monologues and catchy one-liners that define the character so well. There was a sort of goofy charm to Eckhart’s portrayal, but Vance’s Naylor is, quite simply, a smooth motherfucker. His passion for the role was evident, as he clearly had a lot of fun spewing out the egotistical yet snappy ramblings of the main character. Even Reitman couldn’t contain himself, slapping his knees from laughing over Vance’s delivery.
In the film itself, the MOD Squad meetings were some of the most memorable parts, and the same was true for Gad, Seehorn and Vance as the somehow-likable group of despicable human beings. The three actors effortlessly mirrored the onscreen dynamic of Eckhart, Bello and Koechner. (Dare we say that we enjoyed this Live Read trio more?) The three of them were electrifying to watch, as Gad brought his a-game as the gun advocate Bobby Jay Bliss and Seehorn perfectly captured the badass and wine champion Polly Bailey. With their energy as a trio, all seated next to each other, it was a thrill to witness. In fact, we’d happily watch a spin-off with these performers at the center.
A “People vs. O.J.” joke was bound to happen at some point during the reading, and it came from Gad. In the middle of one of Vance’s fiery speeches, Gad playfully shot back with, “There’s no time for theatrics, this is not the O.J. trial!” forcing the cast to pause for the resounding laughter. Gad kept the gags rolling as he decided to take on the role of Naylor’s kidnapper as his “Frozen” character, Olaf. And yes, it was just as hilarious and ridiculous as you’d expect.
As the most seasoned of Live Read cast members onstage with seventeen Live Reads under her belt (Reitman dubbed her as his “Live Read wife”), Mae Whitman as Naylor’s curious, soft spoken son Jack was undoubtedly one of the evening’s highlights. The actress displayed her immense versatility by perfectly capturing the voice of an innocent young boy (no, seriously!), giving the electrifying energy of the script a much-needed warmth. But Whitman’s display of talents didn’t end there. She seamlessly assumed a number of the smaller parts, making even those various minor turns some of the most memorable of the night. (Consider this our official plea to Please Cast Mae Whitman In More Films And Television.)
One of the more surprising inclusions to the cast was well-known sportswriter Bill Simmons, who took over the role of Senator Ortolan Finistirre, originated by William H. Macy. Whereas Macy played the angry senator with the energy of a firecracker, Simmons gave a portrayal that instead thrived on deadpan. In Simmons’s hands, Finistirre was seemingly less likely to lose his head over Naylor’s endless antics. In the theatrical version, you could almost imagine the smoke blowing out of Macy’s ears as Naylor continued to humiliate him. With Simmons, he captured a calmer, yet equally stern dimension of the character. In this evening’s version, Vance’s portrayal of Naylor towered over Simmons’s Finistirre, reversing the David and Goliath dynamic Macy and Eckhart expressed in the film.
Much like Whitman, Tommy Dewey took on his own share of smaller parts, juggling them alongside his main role of Jeff Megall, the Hollywood agent originally played by Rob Lowe. Dewey’s take on the character was just as outrageous as Lowe’s portrayal, constantly receiving laughter and applause from the crowd as he went back and forth with Vance over product placement ideas in film. Although Megall only appears in the script for a relatively short bit, Dewey fortunately had many chances to impress the audience with his various other roles. He also took on the incompetent senatorial aide Ron Goode, having just as much chemistry with Simmons as he did with Vance.
The rest of the cast was rounded out with equally strong performances by Allen, Greene and the underused Livingston. As the Captain, originally played by Robert Duvall, Allen just seemed happy to be there, committing to the role and making the most out of a short appearance. When the character died, Allen playfully overplayed his shock and started rummaging through his script pages, pretending to be surprised and disappointed by his demise. As a veteran of beloved comedies, the man knew how to get laughs out of the audience even when he didn’t have any dialogue left.
Greene’s turn as the Washington Reporter Heather Holloway helped add a balance to the male-dominant script. Her various bits were just as welcome, giving a performance that rivaled Katie Holmes’s. And just like J.K. Simmons in the film, Ron Livingston made the most out of an underutilized character, evoking the kind of gentler, yet stern boss you can’t bear to disappoint.
These events are always special for a number of reasons, as the selected cast are given the freedom to portray the characters as they see fit from whatever’s on the page. As Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell took the stage before the reading began, he said, “People underestimate how hard these are to do.” While it may look easy for those in the audience, it requires far more effort than they actually realize. “We see an actor shape a character from beginning to end.” After all, these actors were reading this script together for the very first time, giving the audience a chance to truly absorb the spontaneous evolution of the characters and the story from start to finish.
Throughout the five years these Live Reads have taken place, this marks the first time for Reitman to finally choose a script of his own. He noted that “Thank You For Smoking” was one that he wrote when he was merely 22, and he asked the audience to excuse him for his so-called juvenile and outdated depictions of sex and women. Nevertheless, such a script was the perfect note to end his series on, as the director/screenwriter and fabulous cast left the audience with a night they certainly won’t soon forget.
READ MORE: Live Reading ‘True Romance’ (Or, The Night That Patricia Arquette Reprised Alabama Worley in Full Costume)
Check out the trailer for another Jason Reitman classic, “Juno”: