TORONTO–“Honestly, I like this a lot more than I like making movies,” said director Jason Reitman as he took to the stage of the capacity-crowd Ryerson Theatre Friday night for a “Live Read” of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” It was the second time the Oscar-nominated Canadian-American filmmaker has brought his series of star-studded screenplay readings to the Toronto Film Festival, following last year’s performance of “American Beauty.” At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where it originated), the routinely sold-out series has included the likes of an all-female “Glengarry Glen Ross” and an all-black “Reservoir Dogs.”
Reitman may have taken on his most challenging project to date, however, with Anderson’s iconic, Altmanesque chronicle of the rise and fall of Los Angeles porn star Dirk Diggler—a movie whose sprawling ensemble cast, lengthy running time and stylized visuals would seem to make it an odd candidate for a radio play. But it turns out that, stripped of its dazzling tracking shots, wall-to-wall ‘70s-era soundtrack, and Mark Wahlberg’s legendary prosthetic penis, “Boogie Nights” holds up just fine, the richness of Anderson’s characters and his deft interweaving of them rising to the fore.
Joining Reitman for the occasion was a 10-person cast led by “the first Jewish Dirk Diggler,” Jesse Eisenberg, and Josh Brolin as the “tasteful” porn director Jack Horner (the role originated by Oscar-nominee Burt Reynolds). Dakota fanning strapped on Heather Graham’s skates as the ingenue Rollergirl, while Olivia Wilde subbed for Julianne Moore as matriarch Amber Waves, Jason Sudekis pulled on Don Cheadle’s cowboy boots as fellow porn star Buck Swope, and Dane Cook channeled his inner John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild. Rounding out the cast were French-Canadian thesp Marc-Andre Grondin (in the Philip Seymour Hoffman part), Jarod Einsohn (in the Thomas Jane part), “Kids in the Hall” star Scott Thompson as impresario The Colonel (originally played by Robert Ridgely) and Jordan Hayes as porn starlet Jesse St. Vincent (originally played by Melora Walters).
Onstage, Reitman recalled first seeing the film at a studio test screening, back when it still contained several scenes Anderson eventually cut for the theatrical release. For the live reading, Reitman opted to reinstate several of these, including a touching moment late in the third act when Diggler returns to his childhood home and learns that his parents have been killed in a car accident. “PTA take note, I think you should put that back in,” Reitman joked.
Despite the additions—and spontaneous eruptions of applause from the crowd—the high-energy performance clocked in at a svelte two hours (35 minutes less than pic’s run time), with Reitman and the actors seated on stools beneath a large screen that featured stills from the film to set each scene. Reitman himself served as de facto stage manager by reading the screenplay’s descriptive passages, revealing just how much of Anderson’s bravura visual style was already there, almost shot-for-shot, on the page.
Brolin (whose vocal inflections veered uncannily close to Reynolds’), and Eisenberg (who brought a pensive, introspective dimension to Diggler) were standouts in the generally superb cast, many of whom pulled double or even triple duty by giving voice to some of the script’s smaller roles, including Cook’s spot-on impersonation of Puerto Rican thesp Luis Guzman. Backstage after the event, Reitman noted the prescience of “Boogie Nights” in its depiction of celluloid giving way to the rise of video (albeit analog rather than digital)—a fitting sentiment for a festival at which there is scarcely a sprocket hole in sight.