There are many things that the older generation loves to remind the younger generation that it won’t get to experience—whether it was seeing Van Morrison in Greenwich Village in the '70s or getting handies in the back seat of a 1968 Mustang at Makeout Point. Jason Reitman’s Live Read series at LACMA is something I could see myself looking back on, years down the road, and muttering wistfully to uncaring grandchildren, “You just don’t see things like that anymore.”
This month’s Live Read wasn’t as star-studded as some, like Pulp Fiction and Raising Arizona, have been, but it was a comedy nerd’s dream nonetheless. There was a unique feeling to the proceedings: it was half rock concert, half memorial—a fitting tribute to the film’s director and co-writer Harold Ramis, whose passing less than a month ago is still fresh on our minds.
Ramis’s death has certainly been on the mind of Jason Reitman, the series curator, who began the night telling the audience about his first film set, the Ramis-written Animal House, when he was only a few weeks old. Though he told the audience that he didn’t have any personal anecdotes about Ramis to share (he was only around the man until he was about twelve years old), he made a point to note how important Ramis was to comedy and cinema.
Comedy nerd energy was coursing through the place from the moment we were ushered into the screening room. There was giggling during the obligatory New York Times ad that kicked off the evening and rollicking hoots and hollers when Arrested Development hero Jason Bateman took the stage in the lead role. The comic nerdery came to a fever pitch when an unannounced guest star, Stephen Tobolowsky, appeared to reprise his role as “Ned, Ned Reyerson.” When he dropped his first trademark “Bing!” it might has well have been the opening chords to “Freebird". There was a full two minute break for applause and laughter. Tobolowsky’s performance felt like it jumped off of the original film stock and onto the stage. Though he now has a few more grey hairs than he did all those years ago, the precision obnoxiousness of his performance was just a sharp as it was when my parents popped the Groundhog Day VHS into the VCR.
Though Tobolowsky stole the show, the rest of the cast was game. You could tell they’d seen the film as often as the audience, and they relished every bit and gag. Though the Live Reads are unrehearsed, the only flub of the night came when Jason Bateman attempted to negotiate some French prose. It seems that the actors had the dialogue from this film stored permanently in the back of their minds. It took them everything they had to keep from mouthing along to each others’ jokes all night long. I would have paid full admission just to see Mae Whitman and Jeffrey Ross banter as the Punxsutawney shock jocks. Elizabeth Reaser, last seen as Matthew McConaughey’s squeeze on True Detective, stepped into the sweet Southern shoes of Andie McDowell with clean comic charm. The greatest surprise of the night was Bateman—an actor who has made his bones on wooden awkwardness channeled Bill Murray’s quipping smoothness in a departure from his standard beleaguered everyman roles.
On second thought, maybe Tobolowsky wasn’t the biggest hit of the night. That honor might belong to the script itself. The Groundhog Day screenplay is legendary. Groundhog Day, as it existed in early drafts, was darker, explicitly stating that Phil had spent 10,000 years trapped in one day, with only his love for Rita to pull him through the endless monotony and despair. In production, Ramis guided the script to a bit of a lighter place, even if a few attempted suicides survived to final cut. Though this was likely a smart move for the film's legacy, it caused a rift between he and Bill Murray that was never fully resolved. Reitman relied largely on an earlier draft of the script for the read, giving the audience a glimpse at what the film might have been. In the darkened theatre, audience members whispered to one another trying to parse out what was later cut or revised, line by line.
With the Live Read series, Reitman strives to bring the personal and intimate into a form reliant upon a grand scale. Opportunities like this one, where a community can come together to celebrate a man who influenced them so deeply, prove the value of this mission. There have been many fitting tributes to Harold Ramis since his death. A room filled with comedy nerds hanging on every joke read by actors with reverence for one of his legendary scripts was yet another one.
Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)