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TIFF 2012: Jason Reitman's Live Reading Of American Beauty

Posted on Monday September 10, 2012, 16:07 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
TIFF 2012: Jason Reitman's Live Reading Of American Beauty

Owen Nicholls reports...

After the triumph of Looper and Argo, the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival 2012 finished with a film launched by the Canadian fest nearly a decade and a half ago; American Beauty. Rather than a 3D Conversion in which the plastic bag looks real enough to touch, or another example of a “too soon” Hollywood reboot, this evening's entertainment was the latest “Live Reading” arranged by Jason Reitman. No rehearsals, no cameras, music only used as a header and footer, the night is about the actors, Alan Ball's words and how one of the first steps in the artistic operation works.

Once it was announced that American Beauty would be the chosen, film speculation immediately began as to who would play the lead. The first to jump to my mind was Steve Buscemi, simultaneously capable of playing put upon and being different enough from Spacey to not feel like a carbon copy, which is never the intention of these nights. Only one name leapt to everybody else's minds, including the Juno and Up In The Air director, and that name was Bryan Cranston.

The double header of Breaking Bad's head honcho and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks in the lead roles of Lester and Carolyn Burnham meant the 1,000-plus auditorium was full to the rafters and also put paid to the outdated notion that “TV actors” lack clout. Flanked by more small box talent, including Arrested Development's Mae Whitman as Jane and Adam Driver from HBO's Girls as Ricky Fitts, there was little in the way of introduction, save the director explaining his intent to “show the creative process”, before the actors launched into recreating the well known characters.

The idea isn't that the actors impersonate those that came before, but find something in the text that they can make their own and in Lester, Bryan “Motherfucking” Cranston (Reitman's words not ours) crushed it. There are obvious and notable comparisons between the actor's signature role as meth-cooking chemistry teacher Walter White and Lester. Both mild mannered and emasculated middle America males, both flip turn upside downing their calm but charmless suburban lives in the centre of a mid-life crisis, both with the capacity to turn feeble into ferocious and both capable of putting audiences in fits of laughter at the most unexpected moments.

Where Lester and Walter differ, however, is in the delivery of those comedic moments, with Lester's gift of humour being far more intentional. In this regard Cranston nailed it. Pinpointing the centre of the acerbic putdowns and, even without the use of camera close-ups, making the most of exaggerated tics and gestures, Cranston had the audience howling as Lester came to life again.

Not just “The Bryan Cranston Show” the experiment did, however, show up how much of the film belongs to Lester. No actor in the world could subtract the cynicism inspired by Ricky Fitts' soliloquies on beauty and Adam Driver, as good a turn as he delivered, reminded us once again why these moments were so ripe for parody. The reading also showed where Jane and Ricky feel most real is in the moments were they're allowed to be stupid teenagers in love.

The nature of the small cast meant having to double up on roles, and while Hendricks took to Carolyn she stood out more playing the teenage school friend that Angela (played in this instance by David Cronenberg's new muse Sarah Gadon) so eloquently calls a “Cunt”. In fact, viewed from this vantage point it's easier to see how Annette Bening left empty handed on Oscar night, preventing Sam Mendes début from joining It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Silence of the Lambs as recipients of The Big Five. The part of the lost housewife gives an actress her moments (Hendricks getting nailed by the Real Estate King will last long in the minds of every audience member) but they're few and far between. At times the character is even, dare we say, a little one note.

These revelations that American Beauty isn't perfect (not so much of a revelation to some) speak greatly to what Jason Reitman is attempting with these nights, showing film is more collaborative than the names on the marquee and that it all begins with a hundred plus pages and words. Marking the first 'Live Audience Table Read' outside of the US, the reaction from the Toronto crowd has hopefully inspired the London Film Festival programmers to eagerly clamber for Reitman's phone number. Trainspotting read by an American cast? Brief Encounter by Brits over 60? What would you like to see Reitman try next?

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