The unmistakable smell of burning marijuana wafted over the audience.
This was the scene at Jason Reitman’s live-read of The Big Lebowski last night, with Seth Rogen on stage recreating the Coen brothers movie alongside Christina Hendricks, Jason Alexander, Rainn Wilson — and surprise guest Sam Elliott, playing the part he originated 15 years ago.
How someone at the reading could get away with smoking a joint in the middle of a packed theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is something we’ll just have to ask the boys down at the crime lab. (Maybe the LAPD should get four more detectives working on the case.)
Reitman’s recreation of classic movies with alternate casts have become a hot ticket in Los Angeles, especially since they’re not recorded for wide release. For the sixth and final one of the season, the Up in the Air and Juno director got sponsor Film Independent to put speakers in the LACMA courtyard so the wait-listers who didn’t get in could listen.
The show had two big surprises — one was Fred Savage, playing a German nihilist, over-the-line bowler Smokey, and the sarcastic cop who finds The Dude’s stolen car, (among other roles). A last-minute replacement for Patton Oswalt, the former Wonder Years actor proved a remarkably great mimic, especially at capturing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s breathless obsequiousness as The Big Lebowski’s own personal Smithers, the suck-up assistant Brandt.
In December, Savage took part in a live-read of The Princess Bride, recreating the young grandson role he originated 25 years ago opposite Peter Falk, and while the joy of these readings is in seeing someone different play the role, Reitman likes to sprinkle in a few actors who are simply taking a curtain call for their earlier work.
The Big Lebowski reading had another such surprise — Elliott, lending his mineshaft-rumbling tones to The Stranger, the inexplicably omniscient (or is he omnipotent?) cowboy narrator of The Dude’s neo-noir. The corners of Elliott’s bushy gray mustache turned up in what we can only assume was a gigantic smile as he came out on stage, the last to be announced. He’s a Reitman regular, having co-starred in both Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air, and he took a seat onstage beside the filmmaker, who reads all the stage directions in the script, as the crowd rose in a preemptive standing ovation. As Elliott began to the story with, “Well, way out west there was a fella …” the crowd interrupted with another roar. “It’s going to be a long night,” Elliott laughed.
But as The Stranger notes later in the script, “Sometimes you eat the b’ar, and sometimes the b’ar eats you.” Elliott stumbled over a couple lines in his opening intro. “My vision isn’t anywhere near it was 15 years ago,” he said, adjusting his glasses, as the audience clapped. Elliott slipped right back into The Stranger’s sonorous rhythms with no further problems, the b’ar’s clutches escaped.
Rogen’s take on Jeff Bridges’ stoner icon was more uptight than the original, a little more pinched and desperate. While weed made Bridges’ Dude ultra-mellow, it seemed to be making Rogen’s version a little paranoid.
Another slight hitch came just moments later, as Reitman read the stage direction about The Dude, writing out a check for .69 cents in a grocery story, seeing a clip of then-President George H.W. Bush on television. A long pause followed. “Oh, we never assigned that to anybody!”
Hank Azaria jumped in to rescue, with a quavering impression of our 41st president slamming Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with, “This aggression will not stand, this … this will not stand.” Azaria, an infinite supply of voices on The Simpsons, was also playing the pornstar nihilist Karl Hungus, Steve Buscemi’s Donny, and the private eye Da Fino — doing an incredibly spot-on imitation of character actor Jon Polito (which is an unusual impression to have in one’s repertoire.)
“Sometimes there’s a man … sometimes there’s a man … Well, I lost my train of thought here,” continued Elliott, who — after his earlier flub — added in an aside to the audience, “that’s what it says on the page.”
When Reitman got to the part where The Dude confronts his similarly named millionaire counterpart, The Big Lebowski of the title, Reitman read the script’s description of the character, “a fat 60-ish man in a motorized wheelchair,” as Alexander pursed his lips, shook his head, and raised his arms in the air in mock outrage. It was hard not to see some of George Costanza’s insecure grandiosity in the character, which adds an interesting layer to the performance, given how the story shakes out.
As the performance went on, Christina Hendricks’ take on Maude was chilly, but not as aloof as Julianne Moore’s version, making the daughter of the wealthy Lebowski clan more of a spoiled princess than an affected ice queen, while Nick Kroll delivered a menacing The Jesus and snake-like charm to pornographer Jackie Treehorn, “who treats objects like women,” (a spoonerism line Rogen apparently mistook for a typo in the heat of the moment, backtracking to read the “correct” way.)
Filling out the many assorted female roles was Reitman’s sister, Catherine, who played a pair of waitresses, a cop, and also the pornstar trophy wife Bunny Lebowski, who delivers the immortal line, “I’ll suck your c–k for a thousand dollars.” Brandt, of course, can’t watch — unless he pays a hundred.
When this scene ended, Jason Reitman said, “Sorry Mom, sorry Dad,” before quickly moving on.
That brings us to Rainn Wilson, another Reitman veteran (Juno), whose Dwight Schrute on The Office is an ever-simmering cauldron of resentment. His version of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak unleashed any vein-popping rage he has stored up in his system over the years. Whether ranting about Vietnam or Shomer Shabbos, Wilson’s interpretation was of a man not teetering on the edge of insanity, but a crazy person teetering on the edge of being reasonable once in a while.
Locked, loaded, and ready for war (any war), Wilson’s Walter drew out what may be the secret political subtext of the Coen brothers’ script — this is the story of two sides of America, Walter Sobchak as the embittered conservatives and The Dude as the naive liberals, locked together in a dysfunctional relationship that only plunges them both into chaos.
Or … maybe that’s just the contact high from the theater talking.
Seth Rogen is not ‘The Big Lebowski’ — he’s The Dude, man!