For those uninitiated folk who have not yet heard of Film Independent at LACMA’s Live Read series curated by Jason Reitman, please allow me to be the first to tell you it is perhaps the most entertaining evening out you can have. The simple conceit behind the evening is that director Reitman puts together a talented group of actors who cold-read a famous screenplay. Past Live Reads have included Ghostbusters featuring Seth Rogen, Jack Black, and Rainn Wilson, The Princess Bride with Mindy Kaling and Patton Oswalt, and Reservoir Dogs with an African American cast. In a distraction-rich town like Los Angeles, Live Read stands out as being the rare opportunity to relish a film you love while experiencing it in a completely new and novel way.
For the return of another season of Live Read, Reitman selected Groundhog Day in honor of the late Harold Ramis. Ramis had collaborated with Jason’s father Ivan Reitman on five films, including Animal House, Stripes, and both Ghostbusters movies. In recalling Ramis’ thoughts on Groundhog Day, Jason said that Ramis was surprised that people connected with the film. According to Reitman, Groundhog Day was the most personal film that the writer-director had made, but would also go on to have the legacy of being the most “Capra-esque”.
One of the most unique aspects of Live Read is that it’s just that, live. Reitman doesn’t allow anyone to record, photograph or stream the reading. So if you’re lucky enough to get into a reading, congratulations: You’ve made it into a once-in-a-lifetime event. This particular reading was made all the more special when the evening’s director and narrator divulged that we’d actually be hearing an early draft of the screenplay (with selections of Bill Murray’s ad-libs thrown in for good measure). This draft included a number of revelations that viewers of the film may have been very interested to know. In early drafts, Ramis had been much more open about the amount of time Bill Murray was trapped in Punxsutawney. A marker of 211 days is revealed during the pastries scene, and a final number of over 10,000 years is revealed in a cut monologue during the party scene. Other changes include Murray’s Phil and Andie MacDowell’s Rita falling in love much sooner in the film. That storyline actually propels the film in a much different way in this version.
Which brings us to the cast. Reitman’s casting of Live Read always has people on the edge of their seats. Mae Whitman has become a staple of the Live Read stage, and this evening, she played Nancy, but filled in a number of roles with her charming accents and voices. Funnyman Jeff Ross stepped in to fill the shoes of Chris Elliot’s Larry in addition to other supporting roles. Elizabeth Reaser of Twilight fame stepped into the role of Rita, originated by Andie MacDowell. Bill Murray would ordinarily be a tough act to follow, but newly christened director Jason Bateman rose to the challenge in the role of Phil Connors.
The final piece of the puzzle for the evening, though, would be the return of an original cast member. Jason has been able to convince cast members from other movies redone at Live Read to return with wonderful results. Cary Elwes revisited The Princess Bride, but in the Prince Humperdink role instead. This evening’s surprise guest was met with thunderous applause when the original Ned Ryerson, Stephen Tobolowsky, returned to the part for which so many people know him. Tobolowsky’s untouchable delivery of Ramis’ now classic dialogue brought the house down with every syllable he uttered.
Jason Bateman’s Phil was the standout of the evening. Unlike a number of past actors who have taken the Bing Theater stage for Live Read, Bateman didn’t try to do a Bill Murray impression for his portrayal of Phil Connors. In this version, Jason is playing Phil as if he was born for it. Phil was already acerbic and sarcastic, but in Jason’s hands he gets a dryer, more put-upon delivery. Where Murray reached for over-the-top and landed safely, Bateman shoots for comfortably cynical and hits the nail on the head.
Jason Reitman’s grand experiment that has become the Live Read series by Film Independent at LACMA sponsored by The New York Times is a nice way to spend an evening out and disconnect from the bustling L.A. landscape. Next month, Jason will return with another classic screenplay and a whole new stellar cast. We’re counting the days that will feel like a pale imitation of existence until the next one.
(Correction: An earlier draft had credited Dave Ross as Larry. It was in fact Jeff Ross of Comedy Central Roast fame. It was late and Dave Ross has a podcast on this here site.)