“This is a very profane screenplay,” Jason Reitman warned the audience at LACMA before staging his latest Live Read, a recitation of the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece Boogie Nights. “It’s one thing to see it. It’s another thing to hear it. If you’re young or religious, you probably should leave now.”
The laughs in the audience suggested everyone knew what they were in for and cheered uproariously as Reitman introduced his cast, which included Taylor Lauter as Dirk Diggler, Don Johnson as Jack Horner, Judy Greer as Amber Waves, Mae Whitman as Rollergirl, Nick Kroll as Reed, Jim Rash as Buck, Nat Faxon as Scotty J., and Kevin Pollack as The Colonel.
Boogie Nights is of course about porn, the transition from film to video and the perhaps forgotten art of the well-crafted pornographic movie, a young lost soul looking for a mother figure, and Dirk Diggler’s penis. His very, very large penis. At one point Reitman even said “d-ck” instead of “Dirk” while reading the stage directions. As everyone laughed, Reitman jumped in to explain: “It actually says that.”
If you’re squeamish about penis references you probably shouldn’t continue reading. Or see Boogie Nights. But, you’d be missing out.
Reitman’s Live Reads, presented by Film Independent, have become somewhat of a staple in Los Angeles. Audiences turn out in droves for his readings to see the actors he’s recruited perform some of the most beloved films in recent cinema, such as The Princess Bride and The Big Lebowski. Reitman already did a reading of Boogie Nights at the Toronto Film Festival, but last night, Reitman made the inspired choice to cast the shirtless Twilight hunk as Dirk Diggler – the role originated by another dude with a shirtless past, Mark Wahlberg.
Lautner was perfect. He captured Diggler’s earnestness, sweet stupidity and eventual megalomania with an easy grace that makes you wonder why he hasn’t been given more interesting roles in films. Or maybe Diggler is just the perfect part for him. Either way, the audience regularly stopped to cheer Lautner for everything from his “I’m gonna be a big bright shining star” proclamations to his surprisingly moving portrayal of Diggler’s coked-out breakdown in front of Jack. But the biggest cheers came after Lautner sang, intentionally off-key, during the scenes when Diggler is attempting to become a rock star.
Much of the charm of the reading came from his interactions with Don Johnson playing Jack (Burt Reynolds in the original). “Hey Jack, can you start calling me Dirk,” Lautner says. Johnson pauses for a beat, looks at Lautner seated next to him, and sympathetically responds, “Yes.” It’s the simplest dialogue, so it might not seem like any sort of feat to pull it off, but Johnson and Lautner had an easy chemistry that perfectly captured what Wahlberg and Reynolds brought to Anderson’s movie.
The laughs and giggle fits came quickly and often from both the audience and the cast, thanks to the hundreds of “c-cks” in the stage direction and the campy porn dialogue that populates the rest of the script. Even scenes that played as heart-wrenching and extremely dark in the film, such as when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty J. tries to kiss Dirk and is immediately rebuffed, elicited laughs from the audience. It’s not Nat Faxon’s fault though – his reading (and Hoffman impression) was spot on and conveyed sincere desperation. If anything, the dead-pan, aggressively literal stage direction was to blame for the laughter. We’re not used to hearing that, and it’s one of the few downsides of these live readings, even though it can be extremely informative in some cases (i.e. the stage direction specifies that Dirk’s penis is 12 inches long. In the dialogue, Dirk tells someone it’s 13 inches).
The supporting cast helped keep the energy up for the two-hour reading. Jim Rash was brilliant as Little Bill (William H. Macy) and Buck (Don Cheadle). Nick Kroll brought a perfect bro-y energy to John C. Reilly’s Reed and had Johnson in stitches when he brought out his Mexican accent to play Maurice TT Rodriguez (Luis Guzman). Judy Greer may not have gotten to use her comedic chops as Amber Waves, but she gave a stunning performance as the sad, motherly porn star that her Carrie co-star Julianne Moore would have been proud of. Mae Whitman played Rollergirl, originated by Heather Graham, as a ditzy, shrill bimbo who breathes heavily and moans frequently, and Kevin Pollack brought a campy sinister growl to Robert Ridgely’s The Colonel.
There were a few surprises during the reading, which was based on the original test screening of Boogie Nights that Reitman saw before the theatrical release which included scenes that were eventually cut. After the iconic “Jessie’s Girl” scene, Diggler was originally supposed to end up stranded on his childhood street. He approaches his house and finds his old girlfriend Sheryl Lynn at the front door with a child. She lives in the house now. He discovers that his parents died in a hit-and-run with a drunk driver. The driver is revealed in flashback to be Johnny Doe, the young up-and-coming porn star threatening to replace Diggler. It was an interesting discovery, but not necessarily one that we might have missed. Anderson got to have his big surprise car crash in Punch-Drunk Love five years later. Perhaps he was compensating for the cut.
Boogie Nights is undoubtedly better to watch, and it was easy to drift and attempt to imagine the long tracking shots through Horner’s house at the 1980s party or the amazingly sinister energy of the “Jessie’s Girl” scene. But Reitman’s cast brought a comedy and an energy to what could easily devolve into shlocky camp without the reference point of Anderson’s visuals. And it was ever so slightly heartening to know that no one can keep a straight face when the word c-ck is thrown around that much.