The Film Independent at LACMA Live Read program kicked off its third season Oct. 10 with its 14th hit show in a row, a staged reading of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights starring Taylor Lautner, Don Johnson, Judy Greer, Mae Whitman, Jarod Einsohn, Jim Rash, Nick Kroll, Nat Faxon, Jurnee Smollett and Kevin Pollak, with the program's impresario Jason Reitman reading stage directions. As usual, tickets for the show at the 600-seat Bing Theater sold out in 20 minutes, even before the cast and script title were announced. Live Read may be the closest thing to a sure thing in L.A. entertainment.
Introducing Boogie Nights, Film Independent at LACMA's Elvis Mitchell said, "It's a story the whole family can enjoy -- a story the Manson Family can enjoy!" But Live Read's readers have such a good time that even the darkest script tends to turn into a laugh riot, and Anderson's bloody, sordid epic of drugs, porn and self-destruction became so hilarious that even the stars onstage had trouble suppressing eruptive giggles. Twilight's Lautner certainly tried to take the Dirk Diggler role Mark Wahlberg created quite seriously, but in the live setting, the satirical side of the script inevitably upstaged the tragedy. When tone-deaf Diggler records what he's convinced will be a hit album in the film, it's funny and poignant. When he says, "Just speed it up a couple octaves," we pity the fool. But at LACMA, when Lautner keened, "Feel, feel, feel my heat!" it just cracked up the house, and Reitman announced, "Worth the price of admission!"
Nat Faxon's virtuoso goofiness mined comedy gold out of Scotty J, the in-love-with-Diggler character that Philip Seymour Hoffman made heart-shredding onscreen. Johnson played it laid-back and relaxed in Burt Reynolds' porn-director role, and Whitman -- a frequent attraction at Live Read -- vamped up Heather Graham's Rollergirl role to excellent squeaky-shrieky effect. Whitman had to keep turning her head away from the microphone when other actors spoke, to avoid stepping on their lines with laughter.
But many castmembers had that problem, because almost everybody was funny and in the live groove. Rash dared follow in Don Cheadle's genius footsteps as Buck Swope, the cowboy music-loving black guy, and so what if he's white? Live Read celebrated Black History Month in 2012 by fielding a black cast led by Laurence Fishburne in Reservoir Dogs.
Not everyone was funny all the time. As pedophile porn producer The Colonel (played by Robert Ridgely on film), Pollak sounded low and growly, kind of like Sterling Holloway's Kaa the Snake in The Jungle Book. Greer hit some of the tortured notes that Julianne Moore did as Amber Waves, the addict who wants to be everybody's mother.
Besides yukking it up, the audience got a chance to re-examine film history by experiencing the script from a whole new angle. As Reitman pointed out, the script's original ending, seen at the Bing but not in the film, has Diggler show up at his parents' house after his porn fame has blazed and burnt out and they, unbeknownst to him, have been killed by a drunk driver who happened to be Diggler's porn rival. "Dirk Diggler is looking for surrogate parents," said Reitman. The ending felt too arbitrarily coincidental and drawn-out onstage, and one can see why it was cut from the film. But thigh-slappingly funny as it was, the Reitman live version did cast sharp light on this theme. Seeing this show will enrich people's next viewing of the movie.
The best thing about the show was the fact that it was an island of freedom from cameras and audio recording devices in a town where practically everything you see and hear is electronically preserved. The stars were looser and freer than you see them almost anywhere but at Live Read. "The only way to experience it is to be in a room right now," said Reitman.
Reitman previously staged a reading of Boogie Nights with a different cast at the Toronto Film Festival in September.