Jason Reitman and The Big Lebowski at LACMA: Seth Rogen’s Dude Abides

To close out his popular live-reading program at LACMA Thursday night Jason Reitman selected a film that seemed to tie the series and the room together: The Coen brothers’ 1998 noir-comedy opus The Big Lebowski. In the hot seat filling Jeff Bridges’ slippers as The Dude sat Seth Rogen, whose own slacker charm proved oddly suitable, with folks like Hank Azaria (as Donny), Rainn Wilson (as Walter) and Christina Hendricks (as Maude) alongside him re-enacting one of the most quotable films of the past two decades. The cherry on top? Playing the role of The Stranger originated by Sam Elliott and written explicitly for an actor like Sam Elliott, perhaps… was none other than Sam Elliott.

Also onboard for the final night of the series’s first run? (According to Reitman, the live-reads will resume again in October – blame the gap on his “day job.”) Jason Alexander as Jeffrey Lebowski; Fred Savage replacing Patton Oswalt at the last minute as the Big Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt; Nick Kroll as Jesus; and Reitman’s sister, actress Catherine, as Bunny. And of course all the while there was Reitman himself, reading along all the stage directions and fantastically detailed scene descriptions, including both of the film’s trippy dream sequences. (But, strangely enough, not Jackie Treehorn’s mysterious moment of artistic inspiration, scribbled on a notepad, which was conspicuously skipped over.)

Elliott’s surprise appearance was the special casting move of the night, a fitting gesture following Reitman’s previous strokes of genius which included tapping original director Rob Reiner to narrate the excellent Princess Bride live-read and re-envisioning Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs with an all-black cast. With his first line Elliott drew applause (and subsequently flubbed a few words, saying his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be) but whenever he came back around to deliver another deep, mellifluous nugget of wisdom – the film’s narrator, sitting right there, narrating The Dude’s story right to the audience! -- the theater was rapt. Elliott’s vision may have gotten worse over the years, but his sarsaparilla-soaked cowboy flair is as rich and twangy as ever. Besides, this was a “Los Angeleez” story being retold in L.A., right down the street from a Ralphs to boot. How could Reitman not invite the man who so specifically inspired a character that his name was used in the script to describe the role??

In many ways, Elliott had it the easiest; the rest of the cast, through no fault of their own, battled the specter of their onscreen counterparts the whole night – a testament to the indelible performances Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, David Huddleston, Ben Gazzara, Julianne Moore and Co. gave in the Coens’ film. Rainn Wilson’s Walter Sobchak was at times uproarious, especially when he, Rogen, and Azaria cross-talked like a well-rehearsed comedy trio. But his Walter was perhaps the most conspicuous example of the film’s performances overshadowing the live-read’s; no matter how well Wilson nailed Walter’s aggro-cluelessness, comparisons to Goodman’s unforgettable work kept creeping into my brain, and it was no contest. Advantage: Goodman.

In fairness to Wilson and his cohorts, the live-read can be an extremely limiting setting for an actor. Performance here is primarily aural rather than physical, and one has to establish as best one can, within seconds of spoken dialogue, the kind of character nuance that is otherwise built through months of preparation and rehearsal. Instead of costuming and sets, you’re chair-bound on a stage staring at pages. This can work well with the right script – say, one reliant on dialogue or especially well-suited to alternate forms of storytelling, like, say, a movie about storytelling – but tackling a well-known and beloved film like Lebowski adds the additional challenge of having to compete, in the hearts and minds of your audience, with the cinematic specter of the movie they already know and love.

Also suffering from inescapable comparisons to the film: Hendricks’ perfectly good Maude, still much flatter and straighter than Moore’s wonderfully condescending version; Alexander’s Big Lebowski, highly entertaining in his pomposity but naggingly reminiscent of George Costanza; and Rogen’s Dude, effective for the most part in a highly entertaining Rogenesque way but still lacking the subtle variations that made Bridges’ turn so iconic.

On the other hand, colorful vocal performances from a few supporting players provided much-needed jolts of creative energy, including voice-over pro Azaria’s multitude of distinct voices (including an off-the-cuff Bush impersonation dropped into the opening supermarket scene as Reitman realized he hadn’t assigned the line to anyone beforehand) and Kroll’s Tony Montana-like Jesus and other assorted delightful side characters. But the biggest discovery of the night, aside from the fact that Reitman’s sister is herself quite talented at accents, was Savage, of all people. The former Wonder Years child thesp-turned-director had done a spunky version of himself months ago at The Princess Bride, but he earned some of the biggest laughs playing Jackie Treehorn’s thug, the third Nihilist, and, most impressively, doing an uncanny Philip Seymour Hoffman impression as Brandt.

I’m glad to hear that the live-read series will continue in October, because that gives Reitman time to choose his next selections and cast wisely. One flaw in his group casting Thursday night was the relative similarity in vocal range of many of his actors; variety of tone and register should help differentiate one voice from the next, giving the audience more to paint the imagination with. Viewer familiarity can be both a blessing and a curse; oftentimes during the Lebowski read it felt as if the room was just waiting to hop from one iconic line to the next, laughing along more out of recognition than from the discovery of new and unexpected nuance in the way, say, our hero wakes up to find his rug missing, or struggles to spit out the simplest of platitudes.

And while live-read regulars like Kroll (not to mention Mindy Kaling and Oswalt) have absolutely killed, I’d encourage Reitman to think more and further outside the box as he plans his next run. A friend suggested gender-switching as a potential way to keep the energy of these sold-out shows going while daring to push the envelope – why else stage a live-reading, except to explore “what might have been” (i.e. Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, Christopher Walken as Han Solo) and “what will probably never be?”

I’m still convinced that the live-read concept may never turn out as magically as it did with The Princess Bride, a quotable classic built on unforgettable film performances and a fantastic script that nonetheless lent itself well to re-imagination. Following along those lines, with a varied and vocally interesting cast in place, what films should Reitman consider next? Here are my suggestions, off the top of my head: Pulp Fiction, The NeverEnding Story, The Goonies, Annie Hall, Casablanca, Fight Club. But, you know. That’s just, like, my opinion, man.

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  • mark london says:

    I cannot believe that with this cast you can be so disparaging.
    Your review reads like a Star Wars fan ripping Robot Chicken's version. Perhaps for you Jen, the film meant too much for you to come to this 'clean'. Shame, as reading between the lines of your review, it sounds terrific.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      I welcome your personal reaction to the reading if you were also there, Mark. This is my take on the execution of this particular reading, which for various reasons did not work as well for me as previous ones. I think there's great potential for transcendence of film and script and live theater in this concept, and I'd love for Reitman to find that magical formula more often.

      And who doesn't LOVE The Big Lebowski? I mean, come on. Call me dirty if you must.

      • Martin says:

        Good review, Jen... although I think you're being a little too harsh on it as well. I was there (as I have been with all of them) and thought this was a solid outing with very strong performances. As much as you seemed to have loved The Princess Bride I would have assumed you would be sold by this as well. Maybe you weren't 'bowled' over enough by the star power on stage? Granted, it is VERY tough to get over the performances ingrained in our heads (The Dude and Walter are always gonna be Bridges and Goodman, for sure) but the cast last night did a wonderful, if maybe a little too similar, job with their performances.
        While I did really enjoy Bride, I'm pretty sure it may be at the bottom of my list (although still one of the best live events I've done in LA -- but someone has to be on bottom!). The issue for me is how iconic the film is... how quotable and how memorable the writing, the performances, the subtle nuances. If you remember at Bride, there were so many pauses for applause and winks at the great lines. Some of this was awesome (Paul Rudd looking for affirmation from Cary Elwes after his first reading of 'As you wish') but the constant audience over indulgence dragged it down. I was worried going into last night that it would be similar -- thankfully, despite being as memorable and clearly a huge 'cult' classic, it wasn't and the flow worked a lot better for me.

        I think this Live Read series excels with certain scripts. The Apartment, The Breakfast Club and Shampoo are PERFECT examples of films that would work well stripped down and presented on stage (Reservoir Dogs as well -- that particular read continues to grow on me the more I think about it). The Apartment has to be my favorite of Reitman's group... the words Billy Wilder wrote and the perfect back and forth from the cast that night just made it so enjoyable.

        My highlights of last night... Hank Azaria and Fred Savage nailed it. Perfect Donnie and Brandt -- and great nihilists. Nick Kroll is great in all of these -- I hope that keeps up! And I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed Seth Rogen -- can't say I'm the biggest fan of his, but he took the role in an ever so slightly different way (while still bringing a lot of himself to it -- obviously the reason he was cast in the first place). I also thought Jason Alexander did a fine job... someone afterwards told me all they heard was George Costanza but somehow I was able to ignore that I guess cause it didn't dawn on me till much later.
        Only negative I think -- Christina Hendricks wasn't my favorite. She didn't seem to add a whole lot but that's a tough role without adding anything physical to it. But anything that keeps Collette Wolfe out of these is fine by me!

        And Reitman has stated on a number of occasions he has considered gender swapping roles so you clearly should expect that to come up (he talked a lot about casting roles regardless of race as well -- and we see how well Res Dogs turned out).

        I agree completely about Annie Hall (or some other Allen films would be great). Classics like Casablanca would be wonderful to see as well. What about Ghostbusters? Clearly very iconic (so I could have the same issues with it as I did Bride) but it has the important thing that works with these Live Reads -- a few lead roles to spread around and plenty of solid supporting roles. Plus I bet he could get the original director to give his blessing!

        • Jen Yamato says:

          Thanks for sharing, Martin! Really interesting to hear your take on last night and the other reads. So much of these experiences are tied to our individual relationships with the films, or associations with the live read cast (Ex. George Costanza). It really can go in so many different directions for different people.

          Seriously, how great was Fred Savage? He has clearly watched Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film many, many times.

          (And I didn't want to say it again, but ditto on CW. I wasn't sure she'd ever seen Princess Bride before reading Carol Kane's part on stage.)

          Looking forward to many more live-reads. Hope to meet you at one in the future! I think lots of folks are pulling for Ghostbusters to happen - imagine the stage direction readings in that one. 🙂

  • Anthony D. says:

    If only Reitman could take this show to the East Coast, I'd attend every one. I feel like I'm missing out on a lot, simply because "Bride" and "Lebowski" are easily two of my favorite films of all time.

    In short, incredibly jealous of you Jen.

  • Max Renn says:

    Jen's responses really tied the room together.

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