Jason Reitman’s Live Read Of American Beauty [TIFF 2012]

Looper may have been the opening night film, but in my mind, it was Jason Reitman who truly helped to usher in the opening of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

For months, critics and bloggers have been discussing Reitman’s wildly audacious Live Reading experiences. The director picks a popular film, and then puts together a cast to read the film’s script in the same format as a typical table read (with Reitman himself reading the stage directions and actions).

The catch is, there are no practice sessions or rehearsals for the cast – they sit down for the first time together in front of a live audience, and read the script from beginning to end. Even more startling – each read is a one-time only event.

To my knowledge, there will be no repeats. Previous reads include such films as The Big Lebowski (with Seth Rogen as The Dude and Rainn Wilson as Walter), The Breakfast Club (with Jennifer Garner as Claire and Aaron Paul as Bender), and in a rather bold move, an almost all-black cast for Reservoir Dogs to celebrate Black History Month.

For tonight’s film, the first in Canada, Reitman chose Sam Mendes’ Best Picture-winning American Beauty. I was initially apprehensive to attend based on how overrated the film is (not to mention my personal dislike of it), but I was willing to give Reitman and company a chance because I inevitably would have kicked myself for missing out on it.

Based on how busy the Ryerson Theatre was tonight before the show, which was delayed by almost an hour, I assume I was not the only one who felt this way.

While some actors played more than one role, here’s a rundown of the major roles alongside who originally played the character in the film:

  • George Stroumboulopoulos as Jim Olymeyer [Scott Bakula]
  • Sarah Gadon as Angela Hayes [Mena Suvari]
  • Paul Scheer as Buddy Kane [Peter Gallagher]
  • Adam Driver as Ricky Fitts [Wes Bentley]
  • Nick Kroll as Colonel Frank Fitts [Chris Cooper]
  • Mae Whitman as Jane Burnham [Thora Birch]
  • Christina Hendricks as Carolyn Burnham [Annette Bening]
  • Brian Cranston as Lester Burnham [Kevin Spacey]

Reitman introduced each of these actors to an insanely ecstatic crowd, even referring to Cranston as “Brian Mother-Fu**ing Cranston,” before immediately diving right into reading the film’s script. And for almost two solid hours, this cast delivered in a way that I do not think anyone in the audience was expecting. Simply put, they were all amazing.

While it took a few moments for each actor to truly settle into their characters, they quickly made them their own (save for Kroll, who did a fine job reading the script impersonating Chris Cooper). And they each made sure we knew exactly why Reitman called on them to read.

Driver, best known as Lena Dunham’s boyfriend on Girls, was an astonishing choice as Ricky, shifting easily from mysterious to angsty. His chemistry with everyone on stage was stunning, considering how dopey and ridiculous some of his lines are. Whitman was just as great as Jane, beautifully portraying a young woman struggling with her identity. Her facial expressions were so animated that she frequently did not even need to read the script in order for the audience to understand how her character was feeling.

Hendricks was a bit disappointing at first, coming off like she was simply going through the motions and giving her lines with almost no thought or reason. But as the reading continued, and her character begins to change drastically alongside Lester, her performance became infinitely better. In one scene, where she let out an almost deafening scream, she rather suddenly became truly marvelous. It did not hurt that watching and listening to her mimic the film’s one sex scene was “worth the price of admission alone,” as Reitman suggested.

But for how great the rest of the cast was, it was Bryan Cranston who outshined everyone. From his first line to his absolutely devastating final sentences, he was riveting and brought the best out of everyone around him. He was an absolutely brilliant casting choice as Lester, delivering each line of Alan Ball’s script with such conviction and mastery that you begin to wonder if he was just reading or auditioning for a remake.

He was sarcastic and downright hilarious when he needed to be, and just as deeply distraught and dramatic. Where the other actors read their characters, Cranston became his character. This was a tour-de-force performance unlike any other, and made me forget that Kevin Spacey had won an Oscar for this role almost fifteen years ago.

There is a reason why Cranston has been making fans the world over with his incredible performance as Walter White on Breaking Bad, and the Toronto audience this evening got to see why first hand.

All in all, the Jason Reitman Live Reading of American Beauty was an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience. I have never seen anything like it, and am deeply saddened that this was a one-night only event.  It was downright magical, and just as wildly audacious as I expected. And at the end of it all, I may just have to give American Beauty another look.