TIFF 2013: Jason Reitman Live Read of 'Boogie Nights'

Jason Reitman Live Read of 'Boogie Nights (l-r): Scott Thompson, Jordan Hayes,
 Jason Sudeikis,Olivia Wilde, Jesse Eisenberg, Josh Brolin, Dakota Fanning,
Jarod Einsohn, Marc-Andre Grondin, and Jason Reitman
Day two of TIFF saw the return of a special event that provided one of the highlights of TIFF 2012, the Jason Reitman Live Read. Last year, Reitman brought the script of the Oscar winner (and People’s Choice Award winner) American Beauty to TIFF and recast the roles with Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and other strong actors. It was a treat to see American Beauty recast anew and to watch actors bring the story to life as they got a feel for their characters and created a synergy as the film went along. This year’s live read of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights saw a similar energy between the cast members, but the result wasn’t nearly as successful.

The casting choices for the live read of Boogie Nights were fairly strange. Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me) was cast in the role of Dirk Diggler, the aspiring porn star with the mammoth appendage, as originated by Mark Wahlberg in the 1997 film. Josh Brolin (appearing at the fest in Labor Day) read the role of porn director Jack Horner, as originated by Burt Reynolds. Olivia Wilde (Third Person) read as Amber Waves, the veteran porn star played by Julianne Moore in the film, while Dakota Fanning read the part of Roller Girl, originated by Heather Graham. Also in the cast were Scott Thompson, Jordan Hayes, Jason Sudeikis, Jarod Einsohn, and Marc-André Grondin. It was an odd mix of performers that brought varying degrees of success to the script.

The cast standouts were easily Josh Brolin and Jason Sudeikis, who brought a different take on the characters from the original film as well as an energy and bravado not matched by much the cast. (They played the parts, whereas other merely read them.) Grondin, for one, was often inaudible, while Cook was overbearingly nutty, playing Boogie Nights like a puppy on coke. Other parts in the film struggled to fit into the mould set by the actors who originated the roles in the film. Wilde, for example, isn’t a bad actress, but it’s hard to live up to the dramatic heft set by Julianne Moore in her heartbreaking turn. Eisenberg, similarly, felt miscast as the lead. His awkward neuroses didn’t really fit the part of the young stud. Moreover, his reading of the part betrayed the limits of his dramatic range as Dirk Diggler didn’t appear too far away from Eisenberg’s other turns as arrogant fast-talkers in films like The Social Network or Now You See More.

What really didn’t work about this year’s live read, however, was how it transformed Boogie Nights into a comedy. Anderson’s script is admittedly humorous, but the reading seemed to miss the point as many of the lines were read for laughs. Perhaps comedy is inevitable when reading lines about foot-long penises and smut-peddlers seeing the Oscar, but it just felt off.

Boogie Nights might not have lived up to American Beauty, though, for the differences between the two scripts and finished films. American Beauty has a script that is character-driven and dialogue-heavy. It could easily be a strong play, so it works by affording actors weighty parts in which they can stretch their muscles and show the audience what creating a performance is all about. Boogie Nights is a similarly strong showpiece for actors, but it’s a tale that seems to be brought to life by more than just a strong script. This year’s live read seemed driven by directions in the script, whereas they merely served to illuminate what was between the lines of American Beauty, as Reitman read one character description after another so that the audience could keep track over which of the nine actors on stage were playing which part in the exhaustive ensemble. (Most actors played multiple parts, sometimes in the same scene.) It was also hard to follow when the directions frequently reverted to ‘cut to this’ and ‘cut to that’ between line-readings.

The reading mostly called to mind how Boogie Nights is a great feat of filmmaking. It has an excellent script, but it’s brought to life by Anderson’s cinematic eye, the tempo of the editing, and, above all, the choices in casting. This year’s live read succeeded in some levels in capturing the essence of Anderson’s screenplay, but, unfortunately, it mostly showed how a great script alone doesn’t always ensure greatness.