Michael Fassbender put his magnetic superpowers aside Friday night to play stoner icon “the Dude” in a reading of “The Big Lebowski” in Montreal, but it was Patton Oswalt’s performance as Walter Sobchak (the role originated by John Goodman) that stole the show.
Organized by the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the sold-out Live Read — at which a cast of nine read the Coen brothers’ cult-favorite screenplay for an audience of 1,300 — took clever advantage of the fact that “X-Men: Apocalypse” is shooting in the same city where North America’s biggest comedy festival is headquartered. As such, the fest managed to lure X-women Jennifer Lawrence (who performed Julianne Moore’s Maude) and Olivia Munn (stepping in as Tara Reid’s Bunny) to join Oswalt and a handful of “Silicon Valley” players — T.J. Miller as Brandt, Martin Starr as Jesus and showrunner Mike Judge doing a dead-on Sam Elliott as The Stranger — for the one-night-only event.
Local interest was so intense that the festival switched venues, upgrading from a much smaller 420-seat theater to the city’s historic Olympia. Dedicated fans showed up as much as five hours early to get in, queuing around the block for a show that started 40 minutes late. (Such delays have been typical at Just for Laughs this year, which seems to be running more or less on Dude Time.)
It also marks the first time that Montreal-born Jason Reitman has put on one of his popular screenplay readings in his Canadian hometown (though he did a Live Read of “Boogie Nights” not so far away at the Toronto film festival in 2013). These star-studded events — which give fans a chance to see how their favorite movies might sound in the hands of a completely different cast, while Reitman reads the scene-setting description — have become hot tickets in Los Angeles, where the director mounts them monthly at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(Mike Judge, Martin Starr, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Dennis Quaid, Patton Oswalt, Mae Whitman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller and Jason Reitman backstage at “The Big Lebowski” live reading at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. Photo by Dan Dion.)
With some of the more popular titles in the series (such as “American Beauty” and “The Apartment”), Reitman has been known to repeat a Live Read with an entirely new ensemble. As it happens, he gave “The Big Lebowski” the live treatment once before, having rather notoriously cast Seth Rogen (who reportedly smoked a joint onstage) as “the Dude” in 2012.
It goes without saying that Fassbender brought a very different energy to the role, though the German-born, Ireland-raised star shed his accent and demonstrated his serious-actor commitment by ambling onstage in boxers and a ratty old bathrobe, carrying a cocktail in a plastic cup (en lieu of the Dude’s signature Caucasian) and smoking three hand-rolled jazz cigarettes over the course of the evening.
“I think Fassbender went a little too Method on this one. I hope TMZ isn’t here,” Oswalt quipped from an adjacent chair, though Fassbender’s “Big Lebowski” shenanigans were small potatoes compared to the 40-plus pounds he lost to play I.R.A. activist Bobby Sands in “Hunger.”
Whereas Fassbender gave what appears to be the most laid-back performance of his career, Oswalt went into overdrive, pouring his full energy into the part of Walter, occasionally even rising from his seat to gesture wildly or wave his finger-gun in the air (while his eight co-stars sat in folding chairs onstage).
When it came time for Walter to threaten Larry, Oswalt broke character for a moment and begged Reitman’s permission to read the “TV edit” version of his part, substituting, “You see what happens when you find a stranger in the alps?!” for the Coen’s original, more colorful expletive. (Fun fact: The Coens penned all of the replacement dialogue heard during TV airings of their film.)
(Jason Reitman leads the cast of “The Big Lebowski” live read at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. Photo by Dan Dion.)
After Oswalt, the evening’s next most enthusiastic performer was Mae Whitman, a regular participant in Reitman’s live readings back in Los Angeles (here, her roles ranged from Steve Buscemi’s Donny to one of the heavily-accented Nihilists). The evening’s most popular surprise was the last-minute unveiling of Dennis Quaid as the wheelchair-bound Big Lebowski — another convenient get, since Quaid has been in Montreal shooting the upcoming Crackle series “The Art of More.”
Audiences were also surprised to discover that Jennifer Lawrence can’t read. When the time came, the tongue-tied Oscar winner may have stumbled through her lines (not helped by the fact they’d been highlighted in the copy of the script given to Munn, rather than in her own), but sitting onstage between Fassbender and Starr, laughing as hard as anyone in the room at the Coens’ best lines, there’s no question she really tied the room together.