“It’s great to be back. This is so much more fun than directing movies, I can’t even begin to tell you.”
So quipped Jason Reitman at the start of the fourth season of Film Independent’s Live Read at LACMA series on Oct. 16. Tackling Alan Ball’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “American Beauty,” the director recruited a clutch of actors from his most recent film, “Men, Women and Children.”
Adam Sandler took on Kevin Spacey’s signature role of Lester Burnham, with Rosemarie DeWitt once again playing his wife in the part originated by Annette Bening. Olivia Crocicchia read for Mena Suvari’s teenage sexpot; Travis Tope limned pot-dealer/videographer/amateur-philosopher Ricky Fitts; and Kaitlyn Dever, Dean Norris and Phil LaMarr rounded out the cast.
It would be easy to read the casting as a sort of crypto marketing stunt — as Reitman noted in an aside, “go see the film, please, I still need a day job” — but there’s certainly something to be said for reuniting actors who’ve already developed a rapport, especially for an unrehearsed reading.
The screenplay presumably has some personal resonance for Reitman, as this is the second time he’s staged it as a live read. (Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Adam Driver toplined a 2012 reading at the Toronto Film Festival.) One can certainly see parallels between the 1999 Sam Mendes film and Reitman’s latest, with both taking a dark view of what lies beneath the placidity of perfect suburban lives.
In contrast to the drubbings “Men, Women and Children” has received from some reviewers, “Beauty” was a massive critical and commercial hit upon release, but when revisited years later, without the benefit of Conrad Hall’s luxuriant photography, the script reveals a number of issues. Its satire is at times a bit cheap, its flashback structure unwieldy, and viewed in the wake of Gamergate and Elliot Rodger, it’s harder than ever to see the romance in Ricky Fitts as he sulks in the darkness, stalking his crush with a video camera. But it still has a wealth of choice lines, and for the purposes of a live read, that’s more than enough.
As the evening’s most unlikely participant, Sandler was a bit hesitant in the earlygoing but quickly found his rhythm, giving the role a more matter-of-fact everyman quality than Spacey’s go-for-broke theatrics allowed, and currying the crowd’s favor by gleefully belting out The Who’s “Magic Bus” when called upon. Crocicchia dug into her part well, and LaMarr did yeoman’s work with a multiplicity of different voices.
Yet the obvious MVP of the evening was DeWitt, who stole the show even more thoroughly than Bening owned the original film. Smacking herself in the face, whipping around her hair and condescendingly grabbing hold of Sandler’s hand, her readings were so inspired that the audience gave her a spontaneous ovation at one juncture, and her drunken come-on in a party scene saw Reitman and LaMarr both glance at each other and burst into laughter. It was about as animated and committed a performance as one could possibly give while huddled over a script, and Reitman would be well advised to lure her back for further collaborations as often as possible.