Pitt! Aniston! Roberts! Freeman! Was this the starriest Zoom ever?
It can feel rather unsporting to turn a critical eye on the live-read fundraisers that have been cropping up since the Covid-19 pandemic banished all celebrities to their handsomely appointed homes. A guy’s got to be one of the world’s wetter blankets to dump on a charity event that aspires to little more than fostering a loose, convivial environment in which we can join famous friends as they have a good time. Fortunately, last night’s stripped-down Zoom read-through of the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High – a special event put together by Dane Cook’s “Feeling A-Live” benefit series, with an introduction from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti explaining the good work of foundations CORE and Reform Alliance – didn’t give too much cause for harshing anyone’s buzz.
It seems like a missed opportunity to get Sean Penn on board for the full hour (he cofounded CORE, after all) and stick him in a glorified cameo as the pizza delivery guy instead of casting him as Mr Hand, the authority figure that formerly hassled Penn as king of the burnouts, Jeff Spicoli. The constant cutaways to cast members chuckling at each other land like unneeded insistences that this is all quite funny. And yes, as the wannabe ladykiller Mark “The Rat” Ratner, Cook makes clear why his evening’s costars have enjoyed more longevity in their movie careers than he has. But these few picked nits aside, the proceedings were as enjoyable and feather-light as one could hope for from a film marked by sexual and gender politics less compatible with low-key fun now than they once were.
A disclaimer at the top of the shindig explained that the script reflects the cultural conditions of its making, a more permissive and less enlightened time. With that much out of the way, the estimable lineup of assembled talent felt free to let their hair down and get into a bygone era of adolescent raunch. Jennifer Aniston vamped it up as Linda, the precocious sexpot first portrayed by Phoebe Cates, at one point revealing a red bikini top over her shirt for the fantasy sequence in which a masturbating Brad (played here by none other than Brad Pitt, adding a meta-layer of spice) imagines her undressing. Aniston did some honest-to-God acting during the infamous scene in which she demonstrates fellatio on a carrot for the benefit of carnal newbie Stacy (Julia Roberts), mindful of the insecurity beneath the fake worldliness. Viewers of the live stream were also treated to the sound of stage-direction reader Morgan Freeman delicately enunciating the phrase “a whole carrot down her throat”.
Jimmy Kimmel stepped in as auxiliary player voicing dozens of one-line characters, so many that he intermittently shared dialogue with himself. (The camera trick of flipping Kimmel’s screen for one half of these exchanges created an artificial shot/reverse shot scheme that smoothed his double duty out.) John Legend and Henry Golding comported themselves ably in minor roles, doing their bit as hulking jock Charles Jefferson and unsettling teacher Mr. Vargas, respectively. Ray Liotta growled his way through Mr Hand’s lines, his default state of short-fused rage a perfect fit for the exasperated, unthanked educator. Matthew McConaughey slipped right into self-styled lothario Mike Damone, to the point that it seems impossible for anyone else to have ever uttered the line about putting on the first side of Led Zeppelin IV.
But the night belonged in earnest to Shia LaBeouf, a force of thrilling chaos as Jeff Spicoli. While his fellow castmates allowed the public a glimpse into the most tasteful corners of their living rooms and lounges, LaBeouf spent the entire program in the driver’s seat of his parked car. He committed to his character by first appearing shirtless, taking the occasional slug from a pink beverage can, and chain-smoking cigarettes that eventually turned into something more hand-rolled and suspect-looking.
A few times, he appeared to wander away from the camera, though he always came back. That may have been because things were warming up in his car, as suggested by the thick sheen of sweat that rolled down his face and bared chest in plump, visible droplets. In a moment’s lull, LaBeouf started dancing to music that only he could hear, perfectly in keeping with a performance of live-wire unpredictability informed only by its hazy internal logic. After the read-through, writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling popped in to reminisce about how Sean Penn barely even auditioned for Spicoli, instead exuding his natural energy and effortlessly earning the part; LaBeouf makes for a worthy successor.
The appearance of Crowe and Heckerling, two proven artists with what was then a newly frank vision for how the world of teens could be seen, provided a necessary reminder: these events only work when the script is good, and this one can survive as an organism unto itself. It comes alive in the stage direction, the little details like Brad’s doofy pirate hat at fast-food fish shack Captain Hook’s being described as “Ponce de León-ian” or the careful subtext-laying of the aforementioned vegetable-based provocation. Even when pared down to its essentials and mounted in the most relaxed setting imaginable, it’s still a real movie – the only kind that stands the test of time.