Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Austin Film Festival attendees lined up at Seventh and Congress streets, not for a big film premiere at the Paramount, but for a live reading of an unproduced screenplay at the theater’s smaller counterpart, the State. Why all the fuss? Well, for one, that screenplay, “2-Face,” was written by “Breaking Bad” mastermind Vince Gilligan, its reading was directed by “Looper” director Rian Johnson and its lead character was played by Will Ferrell.
Ferrell was joined onstage by a sprawling cast including Johnson, — reading the stage directions — Thomas Haden Church, Linda Cardellini, Billy Burke and, in a surprise that got the biggest applause of the entire event, Giancarlo Esposito — “Breaking Bad's” Gus.
In Gilligan’s modern Jekyll and Hyde tale, Ferrell read the part of Earl, a repugnant Civil War re-enactor with a brutal racist streak. When the sun went down, he turned into Rodeo Bob, a gentle, sophisticated alter ego who claimed to be visiting from the future, where he lived in a dome on the moon. Haden Church played Boots, Earl’s equally bigoted comrade-in-arms, and Cardellini read the part of Holly, Earl’s long-suffering wife.
But “2-Face's” secret protagonist is a young, African-American doctor named Malcolm, portrayed on stage by “Treme's” Rob Brown. Seated to the far side of the stage despite his prominence in the script, Brown gave a charismatic performance, clearly hungry to snag the spotlight with Ferrell from several seats away. Just as entertaining as Brown’s performance was watching him and Esposito — hilarious and physical in his own right — react to some of the script’s racially charged material with mock outrage.
Ferrell certainly knows how to deliver a joke, and Gilligan’s tactile, moody screenplay gives him loads to work with, with plenty of sharp dialogue and memorably funny moments throughout the script. “2-Face” becomes increasingly dramatic as it goes on, but never loses its sense of humor, even as the characters are faced with dramatic, complex conflicts, and closes on a hopeful, dramatically satisfying note. The script shares a few thematic concerns with “Breaking Bad,” especially man’s capacity to deny his true nature and the duality of identity.
Before the reading, Gilligan revealed to the audience that he’s been working on “2-Face” for 23 years. Even so, the racially themed comedy remains sharp and relevant today, and the Austin Film Fest assembled quite a cast to honor the work of one of its most esteemed guests.