Roger Ebert's Blog
Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is surely one of the best movies about the theater I've ever seen. And of the many screen portraits of Orson Welles, it is the one that best embraces the brilliance, the ego, the contradictions and the tempers of the man. It tells the story of a teenager named Richard (Zac Efron) who dreams of being an actor and suddenly finds himself with a role in Welles' famous Broadway production of "Julius Caesar."
This is a blessing and a curse. The tall, imperious Welles charms, coaches and encourages him, also publicly humiliates him and (from Richard's viewpoint) steals his girl. Along the way, we get a portrait of how Welles reportedly worked. He was always running late, would issue sharp commands, always kept the focus on himself and hired and fired on a moment's notice. His Mercury Theatre might have flown to pieces were it not for the steadying presences of John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), his producer, and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), his fellow actor and close friend.
What drives the film is the extraordinary presence of Christian McKay as Welles. At 25, this is his first feature after only three TV roles. And he has to portray a man who is supremely self-confident, convinced of his own greatness, striding through the world with arrogance, capable of irresistible charm and sudden tantrums. To put it simply: McKay succeeds.
He does something else. He makes a convincing Welles. I have seen Welles, I dunno, for hundreds of hours, and have been through "Citizen Kane," "The Third Man," "Touch of Evil" and "The Trial" many times for shot-by-shot analysis. I have internalized the great man's screen presence. Yet very quickly I found myself accepting that McKay was Welles. Yes, from certain angles, he resembles him. But it is more than merely an impersonation, and James Tupper is also uncanny as Joseph Cotten. They achieve what they do not as celebrity look-alikes, but with an embodiment, a projection from within, a whole matter of attitude.
Telling two love stories along the way and showing Richard dozing through his high school classes, Linklater achieves something else that's very hard to do. Without lingering to make his points, he shows the production coming together under Welles' bombastic leadership. He casually interworks stagecraft, tensions in the company, production realities. The point is not whether this is all based on life. The point is, it feels right, and the result is an opening night that plausibly convinces us why, as Welles promised, the production made Broadway history.
There is something else. When Welles directed this play in 1937, he was only 22 years old. Yes. And already famous. McKay looks young enough, and yet old enough. How did Welles have so much presence at such a young age? This movie uses a young man to show us. After a standing ovation, Welles asks himself exuberantly, "What will I do to top this?" In 1940, he began preparations for "Citizen Kane."
Thompson on Hollywood
by Anne Thompson
Richard Linklater, never one to worry about commerciality, takes a high dive off the deep end with this period evocation of the early days of the Mercury Theatre, based on a book by a player who was 15 when he first encountered Welles. Linklater and co. try for total virisimilitude; the impersonation of Welles by Brit Christian McKay (who has done a Welles one-man show) is uncanny and delightful. Also surprisingly winning is Zac Efron of Hairspray fame who shows just the right blend of insecurity and sexy swagger as he takes a part as Lucius in Julius Caesar and woos Welles' assistant, Claire Danes, as a charismatic older woman on the rise in the theatre. "What's it like to be a beautiful woman?" he asks her.
The movie is being sold by Cinetic here; the hope is that Miramax (which attended the first public screening Friday night along with a bevy of other buyers including Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia) will want to continue to burnish the fortunes of Efron, Disney's High School Musical star. But the brutal truth is that Efron is breaking out from his usual youthful femme fan base here; this movie will appeal to a narrow band of showbizphiles only.
Toronto Film Fest: Zac Efron & Orson Welles, together for the first time
by Mark Olsen
Acquisitions teams were out in full force at the Friday night world premiere of Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles."
Arriving not just in single numbers, but rather in entire teams, representatives from Lionsgate, Miramax, Focus Features, The Weinstein Co., Sony, Paramount and numerous other companies were all hustling to get into the Ryerson Auditorium. One observer quipped, "it would be easier to just write down who's not here."
Adding to the feeling of excitement outside the auditorium before the screening was a press line packed with glitzy television outlets that would presumably not turn out in such numbers for, say, the new Dardenne Brothers film.
No, they were there for the actor playing the "me" in the film's title, "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron. As he exited his car upon arrival, peals of squealing delight rippled their way back through a crowd of waiting young fans. In drainpipe trousers and a slim-cut suit jacket, Efron looked every bit the safely handsome object of affection, and in person his bangs have such a distinctive suspended architecture, sculpted down and over, that even Rem Koolhaas would marvel.
Receiving a rousing ovation when introduced before the picture, Richard Linklater brought out first Claire Danes, in a slinky-tight dress and teeteringly high heels. Then Linklater introduced Christian McKay, who plays Welles, promising, "You don't know Christian yet, but you're about to." Finally, out came Efron to a stroboscopic burst of flashbulbs from all manner of digital cameras. Both Danes and Efron spoke briefly, each noting that they were seeing the film for the first time as well.
Adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from the novel of historical fiction by Robert Kaplow, the film tells the story of Welles' tumultuous 1937 theatrical production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which he modified into a warning against fascism. It is a surprisingly rousing and loving tribute not only to the peculiar genius of Welles, but to show-people of all stripes.
The film features not only tantalizing glimpses of the finished production itself, but also amusing backstage insight into its genius, as well as the working conditions of The Mercury Theater run by Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). McKay is genuinely astounding in his portrayal of Welles, pulling no punches in making him seem an egomaniacal, credit-hogging narcissist, yet somehow still winning with a devil-may-care charisma that brings out the best in others.
Danes, as shot by cinematographer Richard Pope, pops off the screen with hair like spun sunshine, a pleasant change from the flat, affectless performances she frequently turns in. Efron handily holds things together as the young upstart who stumbles into a small part and gains a modicum of entry into Welles' world.
Charming and freewheeling, the film seemed to play well even to the younger elements of the crowd, presumably not versed in the intricacies of the 1930s New York theatrical scene. The single biggest laugh of the film likely came from a simple tribute to "The Third Man" as the character of Joseph Cotten (played by James Tupper) emerged from a shadowy doorway a la Harry Lime.
Perhaps nothing better signified the film's success with the crowd than the very question of the post-screening Q&A, about the part played by Efron. From somewhere near the front of the stage, a distinctly tween-ish female voice asked, "The character of Richard, is he, like, a real person?"
The Hollywood Reporter
by Kirk Honeycutt
TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - At the heart of "Me and Orson Welles" is an uncanny impersonation of the young Orson Welles by English actor Christian McKay.
He does resemble the "boy genius" a bit, but more crucially his voice is perfect. He has nailed every vocal nuance that contributed to Welles' acting performances and larger-than-life personality. McKay has previously done a one-man show as Welles and, in a way, this movie is a continuation of that show.
Not that the always surprising Richard Linklater doesn't surround McKay's Orson with a memorable cast that plays real and imaginary characters who were a part of Orson's Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar" in 1937. All spark to life quite nicely. Yet you get the feeling that if Orson were to vanish, their life lights would dim precipitously.
There is an audience for this film. Fans of two indie mavericks, Linklater and Welles, for starters. The film also is a must for lovers and students of the theater. Ditto that for admirers of terrific acting. But this all adds up to an art house audience. Any distributor that bites must hope that McKay gets recognition with year-end awards to help boost what will otherwise be modest box office.
The film, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, derives from Robert Kaplow's carefully researched historical novel about the legendary 1937 New York stage production. Shakespeare's play was pared down to 90 minutes and performed on a bare stage, covered with platforms at various heights, with the actors wearing Fascist uniforms. It was a critical triumph.
Kaplow and now Linklater's story imagines that a high school student, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who loves theater and music, wanders by the restored 41st Street theater and is hired by an impetuous Welles for a minor though key role.
Through Richard's eyes we watch the show take shape in its last week, moving from near catastrophe to artistic victory while its director and star (Welles played Brutus) throws off brilliant though often contradictory ideas, sneaks off to trysts with willing actresses and assistants, continues the radio show that pays the bills and never apologizes for his raging ego.
Richard becomes romantically involved with Welles' ambitious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), rubs shoulders with the likes of Mercury co-founder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), future movie star Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Mercury star George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and sees how art involves a certain amount of artifice. Or B.S., as Sonja puts it.
The film gets off to a halting start with too many talky scenes setting things up. The movie hits its stride as the Richard-Sonja romance heats up and Welles buckles down to business. Efron ("Hairspray," "High School Musical") holds his own against Welles/McKay, which is no easy task. He seems a bit mature for a high school student though. He's more a college sophomore.
Danes plays a potentially off-putting role with charm and verve. Other standouts include Kelly Reilly as the show's female star Muriel Brassler and Al Weaver as designer Sam Leve, whose original stage design for "Julius Caesar" was copied by the filmmakers to insure authenticity.
In the end though, Linklater's film is about Orson Welles, not the Me. The film does analyze his artistic process and his perhaps already damaged psyche with a degree of hindsight, giving him a speech of self-assessment the real Orson would have been incapable of in 1937.
That the boy wonder became an old-age parody of himself as much through his own self-destructiveness as the misdeeds of others informs every moment of McKay's great performance. The film ends on a note of supreme happiness and hope, though, both for Orson and for Richard. After all, the future still lies ahead.
by Todd McCarthy
An extraordinary impersonation of the American theatrical boy wonder by the young English actor Christian McKay is the indisputable highlight of “Me and Orson Welles,” an agreeable, reasonably convincing imagining of the circumstances surrounding Welles’ legendary staging of “Julius Caesar.” Another let’s-put-on-a-show venture for Zac Efron, albeit of a rather more sophisticated variety, this British-produced period piece will test how much the “High School Musical” star means as a movie name. Richard Linklater’s amiable entertainment will likely score OK numbers theatrically, with a nice ancillary life awaiting.
Script by longtime Linklater associates Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo closely adheres to the contours of Robert Kaplow’s novel, which drops a fictional, theater-crazed 17-year-old into the final week of rehearsals of Welles’ vaunted 1937 modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play. Aside from the kid, Kaplow’s work was a thoroughly researched account that provided a plausible feel for what it might have been like during those final crazy days before the opening.
Linklater absolutely honors that fidelity to theater history, involving such affiliated figures as John Houseman, Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd in the drama and creating a credible look for scenes from the Mercury Theater’s “Caesar” production itself, no small accomplishment.
The perspective on these momentous days in theater lore is provided by Richard Samuels (Efron), a high school student who, after a chance sidewalk encounter, is asked by Welles to play the small role of Lucius. Ambitious can-do assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) warms to Richard quickly, while Welles sweeps him into his orbit by taking him, by speeding ambulance, to one of his day jobs, where he dazzles all by improvising during a live-theater broadcast.
It’s a heady world Richard has landed in. At a mere 22, Welles had just recently served notice of his brilliance with his all-black production of “Macbeth” in Harlem, and he and Houseman (Eddie Marsan), with whom he bickers here constantly, are intent on making theatrical history with the Mercury show. Early on, Richard is warned never to criticize the boss, and told he’ll have to tolerate lots of bad behavior in exchange for the the privilege of basking in genius.
The somewhat unlikely personal plot has Richard becoming involved with older woman Sonja, the “ice queen” who’s the object of unrequited lust for every man in the company, including ladies’ man Cotten (James Tupper), then exploding when he feels betrayed by Welles. But the immature boy inevitably takes a back seat to Welles himself, especially when he’s represented as uncannily as he is by McKay.
McKay, who previously portrayed the big man in the stage piece “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles,” has very much the right look for Welles at that time. More crucially, he can reproduce the sonorous vocal timbre. Best of all, he precisely catches Welles’ humor, with arched eyebrow, ironic sense of amusement and mocking self-modesty.
This Welles permits just one fleeting glimpse of his inner self, when he shows Richard his marked-up copy of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Otherwise, he consists of one part intimidating bluster, two parts seductive charm and three parts talent, and there are moments, especially when Welles is alternating between acting as Brutus and directing everyone else, that it’s possible to forget you’re watching an actor and really believe you’re beholding Orson Welles at work. At one point it seemed, on the basis of five minutes in “Ed Wood,” that the only actor who could convincingly portray Welles was Vincent D’Onofrio. Now McKay’s got the job whenever there’s call for it.
Shot in the unlikely setting of the Isle of Man, notably in its restored Gaiety Theater, which fills in beautifully, and London, pic does a reasonable job of repping Depression-era Gotham on a budget. But the film, and the comic moments in particular, could have used more snap, some real New York energy. There’s too much spare time for dates and private encounters during the mad run-up to opening night; the novel’s frantic, sweaty-palms sense of nerves is lacking here.
Although he’s adequate, Efron never feels like a proper fit for Richard. The handsome thesp is too self-possessed and sure of himself for a teenage interloper in the big time; he lacks uncertainty and self-doubt. Danes is energetic and engaging as a smart woman most attuned to self-interest. Marsan as Houseman, Leo Bill as Lloyd, Tupper as Cotten and Ben Chaplin as the self-important, eternally pessimistic actor George Coulouris all have their moments.
Production and costume design help bring the period of 70 years ago to life. Richard Pope’s widescreen lensing is well composed, but images looked weak, as if from too dim a projector bulb, in the digital presentation caught at the first Toronto fest public showing. End credits were incomplete, so final running time will be two or three minutes longer than the posted 109 minutes.
by James Rocchi
At any large film festival, it's easy to get caught up in the buzz and the biz of it - most of the time, the press screenings are really press and industry screenings, which means that the person sitting next to you is not some fellow ink-stained wretch who will watch the film and have to write a review but, rather, an acquisitions person who will watch the film and, perhaps, write a check. This doesn't just lead to seat-hopping and movie-jumping as the acquisitions people shrug No, not for us and leave so they can continue their quest; it also leads to getting caught up in an atmosphere where questions of commerce can come more readily to mind than questions of art.
So it was with the Toronto screening of Me and Orson Welles, where my feeling warmed and charmed by Richard Linklater's recreation of 1930's literary New York came on the heels of a much more pointed question -- namely, who the hell is going to see it? Starring Zac Efron as a young would-be actor who's recruited for a bit part in Orson Welles' 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, the film skews young in energy and execution, but unless teens are lured into caring about old-timey theater by Efron's name, it's unlikely they'll go; older audience members, who have the advantage of actually knowing, and caring, who Orson Welles is might be put off by the presence of Mr. Efron, who they know solely from their childrens' repeated viewing of High School Musical.
Therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say -- because Me and Orson Welles is actually a nicely-made, warmly-shaped story of life upon the wicked stage, as Efron's untested actor (when asked what theater he's done, Efron's Richard Samuels shrugs: "Mostly shows at school." Ha, ha ...) gets a bit part in a big show run by a big man, Orson Welles (played by Christian McKay, who's played Welles on-stage before). Welles is a bully, but a brilliant one; as his right-hand woman Sonja ("with a 'j" ...") Miles (Clare Danes) notes, "... In the hope of working with him, you forgive a lot of behavior." She should talk.
Linklater's managed to craft a believable world with minimal resources; lots of action takes place in he theater, but we do get several scenes in a lovingly recreated '30s Manhattan. As Richard climbs on board the vehicle of Welles' will only to be later thrown under the bus, he gets a quick, cruel course in why exactly there's no business like show business. Holly Gent Palmo adapts Robert Kaplow's novel for the screen, as Richard begins a romance with Sonja and watches Welles pull brilliant theater seemingly out of thin air. Welles is a brilliant artist, a top-notch bastard and a world-class skirt-chaser; if the 35-year-old McKay seems a little unbelievably baby faced, remember that at the time Welles was 22. (In another age, the 22-year old Welles would have put together a band and put a single out on Matador; in the '30s, he started a theater troupe. Same spirit, different times.) McKay's part seems a little broad and big until you realize just how well it reflects the way the real Welles was playing a part; several shots and lines of dialogue echo moments that would come later in Welles' life, but again, the movie going 15-24 demographic is not waiting expectantly to decide which film they should go to on the weekend based on the question of which film has the most, or best, references to The Third Man.
Efron's a perfectly charming leading man, even if he looks disconcertingly handsome; another actor may have been better, but you can't help but shake the feeling that Efron was cast not solely for his in the role in the film, but also for his role in the pre-production balance sheet. Danes is fine as a plucky striver with a heart of lead, while Linklater gets the tone of a behind-the-scenes comedy drama just right, the flurry of activity on-stage and the "noises off," the parts played when the lights are up and the roles played when the theater is empty. Welles commiserates with Richard late in the film: "If people can't find you, they can't dislike you." From almost any other film maker, you'd know what to expect, but Linklater's films (Slacker, Fast Food Nation, Dazed and Confused) have always understood that life is random - which is another way of saying life is not fair -- and he side-steps the easy sentiment another director would have tacked onto the film. Me and Orson Welles won't find a mass audience, but the audience that does will find it has a lot to recommend it.
by Jeffrey Welles
Zac Efron is astute, capable and alert as the young-lad protagonist in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, a light-hearted period drama set against the creation of Welles' Ceasar, a modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare's classic, at Manhattan's Mercury Theatre in 1937.
But Christian McKay's performance as Welles is the thing to see and hear. He's got the deep timbre, the stentorian voice, the attitude, the swagger, the size -- much better than Vincent D'onofrio's Welles in Ed Wood (which someone voiced for him anyway...right?), and a truly thrilling act of bringing a legend back to life. And it's not the first time he's played Welles, either.
Clint O'Connor, Plain Dealer Film Critic
TORONTO - Rick Linklater is such a talented director with such a diverse resume: "Before Sunrise" (and Sunset), "Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock," "A Scanner Darkly," and "Fast Food Nation," among others.
He has a sharp eye for what makes movies compelling, so I was jazzed to see his latest today in the TIFF -- "Me and Orson Welles." It is a completely entertaining and enjoyable Broadway-behind-the-scenes look at Welles producing his version of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theatre in 1937.
The re-imagining is courtesy of Robert Kaplow's novel. We follow young Richard (Zac Efron) as he talks his way into a part in Welles' show and meets up with Joe Cotton (James Tupper; Jack from "Men in Trees), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), and Welles' assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes).
I'm a pushover for any movie made in the 1930s or set in the 1930s, and Linklater is on the money with the spirit and tone of his film.
Efron is terrific. But the absolute standout is the barely known Christian McKay as Welles. McKay, who apparently was discovered doing a one-man Welles stage tribute, looks and talks like the blustery genius who gave us "Citizen Cane" and "War of the Worlds."
McKay is brilliant. It's a huge performance. I highly recommend this little gem (although it may not be released nationally until next year).
by John Foote
“ME AND ORSON WELLES” (****)
Remember the name Christian McKay. Sear it into your memory.
This young man becomes a star with his astounding performance as the young genius Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s new film. “Me and Orson Welles” explores the famed filmmaker’s theatrical work in the days before he came to Hollywood to change movies forever with “Citizen Kane.” McKay transforms himself into the tyrannical, mysterious Welles, capturing the man’s beautiful speaking voice, his cadences, his movement, and most brilliantly, his presence.
When McKay appears on screen for the first time, all eyes go to him and never leave; it is as though Welles has stepped out of a time machine. Like most film critics and film professors I have read everything written about Orson Welles, studied his films, his work, listened to old interviews, read the transcripts of others, and find him altogether fascinating. How could that sort of sheer genius live within one man and burn out so quickly?
Or did he burn out? Did Hollywood just tire of him and cast him aside? Here we see him before “Kane” as he was coming to terms with his enormous talents and using them to great advantage in the New York theater scene.
Fresh-faced “High School Musical” star Zack Efron portrays a young actor who comes to New York to study and is offered a role in Welles’s new production of “Julius Caesar,” which would of course become legend. He accepts the part and cannot take his eyes off of Sonja (Claire Danes), the pretty young woman who is Welles’s girl Friday. She seems to understand him when no one else can or does, and accepts his mood swings and arrogance. His explosions of temper are hurricanes of fury, settled only when things go directly his way.
The manner in which Linklater captures the backstage theater environment is wonderful. Having a strong theatrical background, (I studied to be an actor and ended up directing 42 plays), I felt instantly the authentic atmosphere, from the cramped dressing rooms to audneice-filled front of the house. The fleeting romances, the massaging of those precious egos to get the results needed on stage, and the bitter feuding and back stabbing are all here. It is a miracle sometimes that a play ever gets off the ground considering what it takes to get them there.
McKay is miraculous in the role of Welles. I have never seen an actor portray this character with such confidence and authenticity. Christian McKay is gone…he IS Welles, capably capturing the laser intellect of the man. And yet it as though we were meeting the young Welles for the first time.
It is nice to see Zack Efron stretching his acting muscles beyond those wretched Disney musicals that my daughters love so much, and to his credit, he does a pretty good job as the wide-eyed green horn getting what he hopes will be his big break. My God, can you imagine in 40 years, knowing he once stood in the presence of Welles? He walked with a legend, and even if his career never panned out, they’ll always have Caesar.
Danes is very good in the role of Sonja, but this is McKay’s film throughout. He is a miracle in the role. And such acting miracles deserve the highest celebration. With this performance I would say he catapults himself into the race for Best Supporting Actor.
The new Richard Linklater film, Me and Orson Welles,is an affectionate period-piece showbiz comedy set in 1937, when Welles, then 21, first blasted his way into the orbit of fame with his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. (It was the year before his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.) There’s one great reason to see the movie, and that’s Christian McKay’s performance as Welles. He looks exactly like him—the boy-man baby face rounded out with a little too much baby fat, the eyes that twinkle with all-knowing charm—and McKay, who has played Welles on stage, does an altogether uncanny impersonation of Welles the debonair egomaniac, who cut a swath through the Broadway world of stunned producers and leggy chorus girls. McKay gets that melting-butter voice to a T, and he makes the energy of Welles’ genius more than irresistible—he makes it contagious.
I wish I could say the same for Me and Orson Welles. Linklater has framed the weeks of frantic rehearsal leading up to the premiere of Julius Caesar as the story of a naive young actor who talks his way into Welles’ stock company, and Zac Efron, who plays this bushy-tailed rube, is such a genial blank on screen that when he woos the Mercury Theatre secretary (Claire Danes), we seem to have landed in the middle of one of Woody Allen’s quaintest, most mediocre fables. Me and Orson Welles is always sweet, but except for McKay’s performance,it has so little fire that Orson Welles would have wondered out loud what he was doing stuck in the middle of it.
by Alex Billington
I would have never thought that a period piece about Orson Welles directed by Dazed and Confused's Richard Linklater would be any good, but I was wrong. Me and Orson Welles is Linklater's latest film, a very intimate portrait of Orson Welles (played by Christian McKay) and his work (meaning both directing and starring in) the theatrical production of "Ceaser" in 1937. The story is told through the eyes of Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron), an 18-year-old kid who gets a bit part in the play as Lucius and comes to experience first-hand the wrath of the legendary Welles. The film is pretty much a typical amusing period piece, however McKay's exceptional performance as Welles really pushes the film to the next level.
Samuels, an ordinary kid with more lofty goals than just finishing school, ventures into New York City and snags a role in Orson Welles' play. He's introduced to the lovely Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who is Welles' production assistant, and soon begins to fall for her, including joining in on a $5 bet that he'll get into her pants before anyone else. As is always the case, no dramatic story is complete without that female character who messes up everyone's perfect little plan for success, and in this it's no different. Me and Orson Welles never really steps above and beyond the bounds of a typical period piece set in the 1900's, but if it weren't for McKay's brilliant embodiment of Welles, I probably would have been far less entertained.
If you find it troublesome to enjoy period pieces about plays, then be sure to stay away from Me and Orson Welles. However, if you're an Orson Welles fan or simply curious to see what it would be like to spend a few months with one of this world's most prolific filmmakers, then it's well worth watching. Orson Welles' boisterous personality so perfectly portrayed by Christian McKay adds an extra level interest to the film that was utterly captivating to watch. By the time it ended, I wanted nothing more than to see further portraits of Welles throughout the remainder of his life, up to the time when he made both Citizen Kane and Macbeth. Thankfully Efron's character is around to balance out the intensity.
Linklater's directorial presence doesn't exactly shine through as brightly here in Me and Orson Welles, and that's because he does his job of setting it up and steps back to let both Efron and McKay take the to the stage. Last year's Toronto film Married Life, another dramatic period piece, was such a bore to watch that I was nearly frustrated by the time it ended. While watching this, I was worried at first it would end up much the same, but luckily it continued to remain funny, entertaining, and captivating straight through to the end. Zac Efron also deserves a mention for putting in an above-average performance unlike anything you've ever seen from him. Overall it's quite entertaining, but nothing above the ordinary.
By J.D. McNamara:
Everyone knows who and what Orson Welles was. That should be enough to get you interested in Richard Linklater’s newest film, in which relative newcomer Christian McKay plays the gregarious Welles himself. Me and Orson Welles is carried by great performances, like the one from McKay, and costars Claire Danes, and Zac Efron.
In November of 1937, Richard Samuels (Efron) is a romanticizing teenager who dreams of making it big on Broadway. When a chance encounter with Orson Welles (McKay) lands him a small part in the Mercury Theatre troupe’s production of Julius Caesar, Richard is thrust headlong into his dream, and under the protective wing of New York’s most prominent actors, no less. Richard’s charisma and confidence quickly net him various friends around the set: a date with the beautiful Sonja (Danes) (and subsequent kudos from the other young males), the respect of the older actors, and even a compliment from Welles himself. However, Richard soon realizes that everything in showbiz is not what it seems, including the true nature of beautiful women and the rapidly changing temperament of Welles himself. But Richard refuses to back down from anyone, even Orson, and as opening night grows ever closer the tension and excitement feverishly mounts. Only one question remains: will Julius Caesar be a showstopper or a flop?
Linklater has given us many great films over the years, including some with mesmerizing work behind the camera. But since Me and Orson Welles is a film about actors and acting, he wisely leaves it all in the hands of his players, choosing a more subtle approach that guides them through the film. With a breakout performance from McKay, who effortlessly brings to life the gargantuan figure of Orson Welles, and solid support from Danes and Efron, Me and Orson Welles is an acting clinic, and a must see.
by Allan Hunter
Richard Linklater seems intent on proving himself a director for all seasons. His career now runs the gamut from the boldly experimental to the blandly commercial. Me And Orson Welles marks yet another departure as the versatile auteur creates a sweetly entertaining putting-on-a-show period drama that celebrates a defining moment in the life of American theatre and one of its most iconoclastic stars.
The audience that embraced Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and Mrs Henderson Presents should also welcome this handsome paean to the arts and the ability to wrestle triumph from the jaws of defeat. A robust specialist release should allow Linklater to reach an older, well-heeled demographic who have little knowledge of his slacker movie past.
If you are going to make a film about Orson Welles then you need an actor who can provide a brilliant impersonation of this colossus of the New York stage. They have found such an actor in Christian McKay who gives a superlative performance. He captures both the look and sound of Welles, convincing in every aspect from his sing song cadences to the mischievous twinkle that dances in his eyes. It is a performance that achieves the same kind of verisimilitude and depth that earned Philip Seymour Hoffman plaudits and a Best Actor Oscar for Capote.
Christian McKay rightly dominates the film although that does not detract from the very able efforts of an ensemble cast called upon to portray such well known figures as John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), inveterate ladies man Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) or a jittery George Couloris (Ben Chaplin). Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, the story is set in a jaunty vision of 1937 New York that has some affinity with the period films of Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway etc). Welles is rehearsing what will become his legendary Mercury Theatre modern dress production of Julius Caesar. Drama student Richard (Zac Efron) is a starry-eyed teenager who becomes caught up in the whirlwind of Welles genius as he is offered the part of Lucius. It is an experience that shows him the best and worst of an actor’s life and also brings him into contact with Sonja (Claire Danes), the company’s girl friday and the woman that all the men lust after.
The screenplay adaptation by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo has a good deal of ready wit and easy charm, taking real events and shaping them into a story that allows us to see the monstrous ego and boundless charm of Welles
through the eyes of a relatively unsullied bystander. There is almost an echo of My Favourite Year (1982) in the relationship between idol and worshipper. The story is briskly told, conveying a sense of life in the theatre, the moral complexities of the position in which Richard finds himself and the sheer presence of Welles (only 22 himself at the times) as he musters his troops or dashes across town in an ambulance to save precious time.
Claire Danes is a very appealing Sonja and Zac Efron makes Richard a believable innocent filled with the hopes and idealism of youth but it is Christian McKay’s dazzling Welles that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
by Adam Donaldson
Richard Linklater is a man well known for his films about hipsters, slackers, dopers and dreamers, but what about the bleary eyed innocence in the young man looking to make his mark on the world through the arts (and I don’t mean School of Rock). The Toronto International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Linklater’s new film, Me and Orson Welles, a movie he said effectively checks the movie-within-a-movie concept and the Shakespeare picture, off his directorial to-do list. It’s a period comedy-drama that’s about art through determination, talent and sheer force of personality; the unstoppable force versus the nearly immovable object.
In a surprising, dramatic star turn, Zac Efron throws away his Wildcats uniform to play Richard, an aspiring actor still in high school in 1937 New York. One day he finds himself walking past the Mercury theatre during the lighting of their new sign. Richard’s skill at the drum roll impresses the man mounting the theatre’s production of Julius Caesar: Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Richard gets suckered in by Welles’ magnetic personality and bravado; his self assurance and confidence in his own artisanship. Richard also begins to fall for the company’s assured and attractive secretary Sonja (Claire Danes). Little does he know though, that all these new influences in his life are about to collide in a profound way.
Linklater’s cleverness is the way he dresses up what is actually a typical coming of age story into a day in the life biography of one of the 20th century’s biggest showmen, while also being an artistic period piece that exposes the virtues of the theatre. If Me and Orson Welles weren’t so intently focused on character, the whole thing might have felt trite. And Linklater’s proven himself as adept as Welles himself for taking the familiar and getting so far into it, that you don’t recognize the thing you looking at, because you’re seeing it from the inside. Wasn’t A Scanner Darkly, peeling away the high time humour and the animation, a police procedural, and Before Sunrise and its sequel, just a couple of people talking?
Rest assured though, there’s nothing usual about the final product here either. McKay, in his first film role, is the best Welles sine Live Schreiber in RKO 281, a really impressive performance even though I don’t think the voice was quite right. But the thing of it is, you’re not listening to the voice, but rather, like Richard, you’re being drawn in to the aura of Welles. That certain something that made you love him and not be able to forgive yourself for knowing it when he got repugnant. There is great humanity in Welles though as McKay plays him, both the good and the bad. A simple, whispered “thank you” to the back of the theatre manager (Eddie Marsan) as he leaves for the night says volumes about Welles’ character.
But really there are two star turns in the film, and as I’ve said the other belongs, inexplicably, to Zac Efron. He could feed off the High School Musical gravy train for at least another three years, but I admire the young actor for taking a chance on his talent by playing in this sandbox. He’s magnetic and charming, but also vulnerable and driven. You think he’s so mature but the way he handles things later with Sonja required Efron to play both sides of a polar opposite dichotomy equally, and he does so with grace. Danes, meanwhile has never been better I don’t think; she’s smart, sexy and just a little bit dangerous. The kind of girl you just know will take your heart and break it whether you realize it or not. I also want to highlight Zoe Kazan as Greta, a writer that Richard meets and befriends. I would have loved to have seem more of her, but I think she’s in it just enough to get you hooked on her motor-mouthed sweetness.
But this is a quality film that works on all levels, from the characters to the production design to the pacing. It’s unlike any Linklater film I’ve seen, but considering the big personalities involved, it feels in keeping with the rest of his oeuvre. It’s a small film that looks big and it’s personal despite its scope. I think its one of Linklater’s finest and that’s really saying something considering some of the other films that he’s made. I hope that Me and Orson Welles gets a wide release because it’s probably the best thing with the Welles name attached since Citizen Kane.
Ain't it Cool News
by El Chivo
Richard Linklater has previously earned the right for me to be excited about seeing his films regardless of what they're actually about. Turns out this is from a fiction novel by Robert Kaplow, which was based on a famous photo of Orson Welles and a young man performing together during Welles' 1937 production of Julius Caesar. "That guy playing Orson Welles was genius!" That seemed be the comment coming from nearly everyone's mouth after the screening. It's true. Christian McKay as Welles is the perfect, magnetic magic of an actor playing a role they were born to play. It's no surprise to learn McKay's resume includes various BBC radio projects. Claire Danes was looking mighty nice in person and does an excellent job onscreen as an unashamed, flawed love interest for Zac Efron's character (the "ME" of the title). A small contingent of the Zac Efron fan club was present at this, the World Premiere. Thankfully, they were mostly civil and kept the shrieks to a minimum. Efron isn't great and isn't terrible. He's adequate when his character is actively engaged, but spends a fare amount of time starring somewhat blankly and whatever else is going on as Welles tries to ready the Mercury Theater for opening night. The tone is light throughout, but so too is the overall impression of the film. McKay's portrayal of Welles is one for the film history books, while the rest is charming, but a bit slight. Also, what was going on with the color red being used everywhere, all the time? My TIFF People's Choice Ballot: 3 out of 4.
by Ty Burr
My high hopes for the new Richard Linklater movie, "Me and Orson Welles," were only partly met. Set in 1937, it's about another Jersey boy in Manhattan, this one a stagestruck high schooler who gets a bit part in the soon-to-be-legendary Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar," directed by and starring Orson Welles. The Great Man is played by Christian McKay (who previously played Welles in a one-man stage show) as an immensely gifted baby tyrant, but the catch is that the kid is played by Zac Efron of "High School Musical" fame. He's not bad, just far out of his league, and Linklater himself seems a little cowed by the deluxe production design and period ambience. The result is a good film that could have been great, stiff in the places it should have soared. Worth a look when it comes out, though, especially if you're a fan of the time and place.
But, oh, the crowds outside the theater screamed for Efron -- I'll post some video of that in a bit -- and, man, did they shriek their polite Canadian lungs out for Brad Pitt when he walked the red carpet for the "Burn After Reading" premiere.
by Matthew Torti
There is nothing more entertaining than watching a film in which you know the filmmakers had a great time making. Me and Orson Welles is such a film; a light, frothy period piece with interesting, funny characters and one centerpiece performance.
Prior to the screening, the film had been tapped to be Zac Efron’s breakthrough into the world of more mature filmmaking. While Efron’s character is indeed the main character, he can’t even compare to the spirit of Orson Welles prevalent throughout the film, played uncannily by relative unknown Christian McKay.
Me and Orson Welles takes place in New York City in 1937 and tells the tale of high schooler Richard Samuels, who is cast in a production of Julius Caesar for the Mercury Theatre, directed by a brash young man named Orson Welles.
Half the fun of watching this film comes from the fact that we, the audience, are witnessing a young, arrogant and incredibly gifted man (whom we know of and is one of the most important figures in cinematic history) develop into the mad genius that would eventually take Hollywood by storm. In other words, we are seeing history unfold right before our eyes. Even though Citizen Kane is never mentioned, the subtle hints sprinkled throughout pertaining to Welles’ masterpiece are more than evident.
The performances are wonderful all around. While Efron doesn’t quite break the mold of the cookie cutter Disney performer, he definitely shows promise. If he continues in this direction after October’s High School Musical 3 it should be interesting to see how he develops as an actor.
Claire Danes does an adequate job as Sonja Jones, Welles’ assistant and Richard’s love interest. She’s essentially playing the same character she’s played throughout most of her career; while it doesn’t hurt the film in the long run, her lackluster performance shows when she shares the frame with Efron and (especially) McKay.
That said, McKay IS Me and Orson Welles. A theatre actor in the UK, McKay is a relative unknown in these parts. But not for long. He’s been able to do what so many have failed to do before him, which is to humanize Welles. It’s easy for an actor to portray him as the mad genius. But to exude a subtle hint of humility in such a strong, powerful character, that takes great talent and discipline. McKay commands the screen whenever he is present, which is, thankfully, quite often.
While Richard is the main character of this particular story, Welles is the heart and soul of the picture. McKay shows that Welles was both an asshole and a saint; he’d have to be in order to get away with what he did. Even though we see Welles at his belittling worst, we would still jump into the fire if he asked us, just so we could see an infectious smile and get a compliment out of him.
Showing an uncanny talent at capturing a specific period in time through the lens, Richard Linklater proves that he is a director who can effectively tackle any genre without fault. The script, by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (based on Robert Kaplow’s book) suffers from a number of pacing isses by the end of the third act, but nothing too severe as to take away from the enjoyment of the film. Also, for a film close to two hours, it seems a little too long for the story it tells.
Me and Orson Welles is a fun, enjoyable film that takes place during the early career of a highly respected (and feared) artist who would become a legend. A wonderful story, beautiful attention to detail and great performances (primarily McKay’s stellar, Oscar worthy turn) make for a unique spin on the all too familiar coming of age tale.
7.5 out of 10
by Mark Daniell
Director Richard Linklater is kind of like the John Mayer of movies. If you don't like dialogue-driven films (of which he has done several, including Before Sunrise/Sunset and Waking Life), then you can trade those for straight comedy (Bad News Bears, School of Rock). If you don't like either, he does sci-fi (A Scanner Darkly) and weaved Eric Schlosser's non-fiction best-seller, Fast Food Nation, into a collection of short vignettes.
So now comes Me and Orson Welles, which, based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, tells the story of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student whose dreams of stardom lands him a plumb role in Welles's production of Julius Caesar.
But the thing I liked about this movie was its similarity to Linklater's 1994 coming-of-age tale about those 'two people on the train' - Before Sunrise.
Efron and his romantic interest (played by Claire Danes) have the same wonder and youthful optimism Jesse and Celine did in that first film. So even though the story is kind of blah (maybe that's the weather talking), the performances, bookended by Christian McKay's gruff rendering of Welles, are immediately seductive.
Expect to see more of Efron once he outgrows the High School Musical series.