Elvis is in the building.
Well, two Elvises, actually, and they share a moment before Film Independent’s December 16 Live Read of True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) at the Ace Hotel. Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll, flags down Elvis Mitchell, Film Independent curator at LACMA, taking advantage of a photo op to strike some poses with his name double at a sudden barrage of smartphones. Mitchell claps Presley on the back and hurries away; he’s got a big-stage performance to oversee. As it turns out, Presley has a performance of his own. He swaggers to the impromptu dais in the Ace foyer and delights the gathered crowd with an entire Elvis Presley setlist.
This particular choice of a warm-up act makes perfect sense in the context of the night’s Live Read; the King hovers like a specter throughout True Romance, making two peripheral appearances in the film as protagonist Clarence Worley’s id personified.
Elvis hovers around the Live Read performance, too, sauntering out onto the grand Ace stage to delighted applause when the script beckons — the one break from an otherwise straight-laced (if highly entertaining) read-through. Comedian Kevin Pollak, playing the part of Don Vincenzo Coccotti (originally Christopher Walken), broke out his celebrity impersonation chops for the occasion and read Elvis’s lines in a pitch-perfect drawl.
Thus, the craziness takes hold. It is a case of an actor reading lines for an impersonator, who is imitating a 20th century icon, himself an actor, who is portrayed by a different actor altogether (the one and only Val Kilmer) in the original True Romance film. And in the context of the film, of course, Elvis isn’t really there.
This loopy, meta-contextual layering adds even more craziness to an already gonzo script from pop culture aficionado and gleeful genre-smasher Quentin Tarantino, whose devotion to the moving picture industry makes itself known in the many disparate film references scattered throughout the script. Hosting this special Live Reads event at the famed Ace Hotel theater lends the performance additional prestige, without sacrificing what made the original so beloved to film geeks everywhere.
As Roger Ebert concludes in his “Siskel & Ebert” review following the film’s release: True Romance is “totally absurd and…kind of fun?”
The Live Read is also all kinds of fun, taking on a surefire element of campiness given how seriously the characters in the original film take themselves. Though the film inspires a couple of dark-humor chuckles, its crime-soaked, romance-fueled scenes drive most of the plot. But the live performance earns guffaws all around, thanks in large part to some of the greatest comedic actors in Hollywood: Keegan-Michael Key as Alabama’s pimp, Drexl (originally Gary Oldman), Kevin Pollak as Vincenzo (originally Christopher Walken), J. K. Simmons as Clarence’s father, Cliff (originally Dennis Hopper), Jason Segel as the perpetually high Floyd (originally Brad Pitt), and the Duplass brothers as Detectives Nicholson and Dimes.
The result? A whole lot of laughs. Keegan-Michael Key of the comedy sketch duo Key & Peele was a perfect choice by Reitman to play Gary Oldman’s Drexl Spivey, a brutal and ridiculous character who stands out as a cinematic favorite despite a mere seven minutes of screentime. Key garners laughter from his first line to his last, and his take on the character is all the more humorous given that he — and African-American man — is playing someone who isn’t black, but “thinks he is.”
Live Reads veteran Mae Whitman is, as usual, a treasure (and also, as usual, revels in playing a male character). For this performance, she slides into the role of Dick, a struggling actor and Clarence’s best friend, upping Michael Rapaport’s original performance with gesticulative gusto.
Another frequent Live Reads guest, Mark Duplass, is joined this time by his brother, Jay, as they team up for a Starsky and Hutch-type rendition of boastful detectives Nicholson and Dimes. This casting also proves to be spot-on: they finish each other’s sentences and jabber over each other with the practiced flair of siblings who have had decades of real-life practice.
But by far the most popular guest of the evening is comedian Kevin Pollak, who is billed as Detroit Mafioso Vincenzo but also fills in for Drexl’s lackey Marty, film producer Lee Donowitz, and of course, the voice of Elvis Presley.
One of the most deliciously ludicrous scenes in True Romance is brought to life with equal vigor by Pollak (as Vincenzo) and J. K. Simmons, embodying a delusionally frank Cliff Worley, as he goes on an ill-advised tangent about Vincenzo’s racial ancestry. Even their fellow castmates couldn’t contain themselves during Simmons’ deadpan monologue and Pollak’s violent, matter-of-fact reaction.
Of course, one can’t rave about the actors’ deliveries without hearkening back to the Tarantino screenplay — his very first. Some of the descriptions (read aloud by Reitman) are surprisingly tender, such as his portrait of Detroit as a “post-Holocaust city.” Most are snarky, such as the invocation to “imagine what Bel Air would look like if the crime rate accelerated so much that everyone just said, ‘fuck it,’ and left.” Character descriptions paint an immediate portrait: Clarence is introduced as “a young hipster hubcap,” and Alabama at one point is “vaguely reminiscent of the Tazmanian Devil.”
However, the big news leading up to the True Romance Live Read was the announcement that both Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette would be reprising their original roles as Clarence and Alabama. The duo slide back into their parts perfectly, 22 years worth of Hollywood careers shelved for a couple of hours of nostalgia. Arquette, all fiendish giggles, even dressed for the occasion, sporting Alabama’s signature sunglasses and leopard-print ensemble. As for Christian Slater? He is so cool, so cool, so cool.
In fact, someone in the audience yells out, “You’re so cool!” before the Live Read begins. There is a ripple of appreciative laughter at one of the film’s most memorable lines.
I wonder, for a moment, whether the actors have become too cool since these defining roles; Arquette just earned an Oscar for her poignant turn in 2014’s Boyhood and Slater recently struck it big as the slippery title character of the acclaimed USA television series Mr. Robot. But the fact that the two were so eager to dive back into the wacky world of Clarence and Alabama speaks to the everlasting influence of the original story. Perhaps it was, after all, a true romance.
Visit Film Independent at LACMA for more information on future events.
This piece originally appeared on Neon Tommy.