Grounded in actual theatrical history, Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is a diffuse, intermittently insightful and charming tale about an important chapter in American culture.
The feature revolves around the audacious staging of "Julius Caesar," in 1937, by a young brilliant director named Orson Welles, several years before he moved to Hollywood and helmed "Citizen Kane," considered by many the best American film ever made.
The uneven screenplay by Linklater's vet collaborators Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo is based on Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel, which was original in the way that it placed a fictional character in the midst of a more realistic context.
Linklater uses two narrative formats that are not always compatible, offering a look behind the scenes of the chaos, egos, and creativity in putting Shakespeare's tragedy on stage, alongside a romantic coming-of-age, saga. End result is a film that offers some incidental pleasures but lacks a strong center and takes too long to get going.
Bordering on impersonation, a strong performance by Brit newcomer Christian McKay, as the imperial and egomaniac Orson Welles, compensates for the slight and light turn by Zac Efron in the lead, showing that the handsome heartthrob may not be ready yet for a major dramatic turn. (The part calls for an actor of the caliber of the young Sean Penn or Matt Dillon or John Cusack).
Though different in approach, focus and style, "Me and Orson Welles" shares some similarities with Efron's Disney's "High School Musicals" in providing details about putting on a show. The movie, which world-premiered to mixed response at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations), will be released by Free Styling in select cities November 25, 2009, but I doubt that many of Efron's fans would see this period picture.
It's unclear at first what attracted the gifted Linklater to this text, and the film's first half suffers from the same problems that hampered Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," a chronicle about a unique moment in American culture, the events surrounding Orson Welles' 1937 musical, which was shut down by government injunction due to the cast's alleged left-wing politics
There's also the danger that "Me and Orson Welles" would fall in between the cracks. The film is not strong enough as a romantic coming-of-age saga, and it's not deep enough as a serious look at theatrical history. Moreover, those familiar with the historical background and dramatis persona might find the film lacking as for them there is not much new in this version. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the basic facts will be overwhelmed by the name-dropping of celebs (Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" was impaired for the same reasons).
"This is the story of one week in my life," says Kaplow’s protagonist. "I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles's pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. It was the week I fell out of love."
Set in the world of New York theatre, the book and film center on a teenage student named Richard Samuels, who lucks his way into a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” re-imagined by the brilliant and impetuous Orson Welles. In actuality, the youthful genius Welles was only four years older than Richard. However, in the movie, actor McKay looks and behaves like Richard's surrogate father-mentor, though admittedly, the real Welles always looked older than his age.
The week leading up to the opening night, whose date keeps changing, shows Welles to be cruel, manipulative, and calculated, staking his entire career on this risky production, but doing it all too consciously in order to put his name on the cultural radar. Meanwhile, the endlessly likable Richard wanders around, running errands, and socializing with everyone, from starlet to stagehand to producer and designer to Welles himself.
Rather unconvincing is the romantic triangle of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the slightly older woman and unapologetically ambitious production assistant whom Richard courts, beds, and falls for, only to lose her to his boss Welles, and later on to David O. Selznick.
However, despite problems, some of the vignettes are endearing and also revelatory. Allusions to David O. Selznick, another egocentric Hollywood producer, then in pre-production of his upcoming 1939 epos, "Gone With the Wind," hit their mark.
And observations made by some of the film's other notable characters illuminate the theatrical ambience that prevailed in New York in the late 1930s. Among those are the Mercury's co-founder John Houseman (played by Eddie Marsan of “Happy-Go-Lucky” fame), who engages in endless arguments with Welles over artistic and personality issues. Ben Chaplin plays Mercury Theater regular George Coulouris, Kelly Reilly portrays spiky diva Muriel Brassler, and James Tupper is the future star Joseph Cotton (who would appear in Welles' first two pictures, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons").
The saga is nicely framed by crucial scenes between Richard and Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring writer he accidentally befriends at the Metropolitan Museum, and later helps in getting published, with the "New Yorker" no less. Marked by smooth dialogue, these interactional scenes are vintage Linklater, vividly conveying youthful aspiration as well as romantic intellectualism, two of the helmer's most recurrent themes.
Richard's on and off-stage adventures are meant to show how he changed, or matured but, as played by Zac Efron, the transformation remains vague, and at the end, despite humiliation, getting fired by Welles right after opening night and being dumped by his love interest, Richard seems to be the same hopeful and romantic guy he has always been.
Ultimately, the film belongs to newcomer Christian McKay, an alumnus of RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company, who immerses himself body, voice, and soul, in impersonating Orson Welles.
The movie was largely shot in the historic and restored Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man, which hosted the stage performances and backstage scenes at the Mercury Theatre, to which it bears remarkable resemblance. The New York streets were constructed on the back lot of Pinewood Studios, with interiors being filmed on Pinewood’s sound stages. Other key scenes were shot in various period locations in and around London, including the British Museum, which stands in for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomsbury Square and Crystal Palace Park.
Houston Chronicle blog
More than four years in the making, Cinema Arts Festival Houston finally kicked things off Wednesday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where Richard Linklater, director of Me and Orson Welles, and festival curator Richard Herskowitz were among those walking the red carpet before the screening of Linklater's film -- which was fantastic, by the way. Christian McKay is shockingly good as Orson Welles and Zac Efron makes a great counterpoint as the novice teen actor who falls under Welles' spell.
Blog: Style by Numbers
On Monday I got free tickets to a preview of Me and Orson Welles at the IFI. It was a nice little film about Orson Welles’s band of misfit actors and artists as they prepare a play. Movie review aside (I liked it)... [the rest is unrelated].
'Press Clippings' from MAOW FB
Actually I'm just going to post a couple of them here, but there are more at the UK FB gallery here.
Sorry that one is so small, it's the way it is on the FB page :(
But I've transcribed the Zac part:
I used to think that the only reason Zack [sic] Efron had a career was because Brent Corrigan was too busy making porn, but here the floppy-haired moppet is earnest and personable, a perfect foil for Welles' megalomaniac brilliance.
One more competition to add for the London Premiere: Vue Cinemas
2 more DC things
Reliable Source: Exuberant tweens flock to Zac Efron screening
Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger
Poor Zac Efron. The "High School Musical" star came to D.C. on Tuesday to lobby for the arts and a private screening of his first grown-up movie, "Me and Orson Welles." But he couldn't escape his tween idol past: A mob of adoring preteens in the audience (guests of their parents) went nuts when the actor, 22, appeared onstage at the Loews Georgetown theater for a panel discussion with co-star Claire Danes, director Richard Linklater and Americans for the Arts' Robert Lynch.
"You have to calm down," Linklater told the front row filled with girls -- some weeping, some squealing, others Twittering like crazy.
Efron, to his credit, did a masterly job of keeping the teen madness at bay. "He sweetly ignored it," reports our colleague Valerie Strauss, who moderated the panel. "He handled it well."
Washington Examiner: Efron visits WH, but not Obama daughters
Nikki Schwab and Tara Palmeri
When the White House extended an invitation to teen star Zac Efron to come visit while he was in town promoting his new movie "Me and Orson Welles," surely it was so he could meet the Obama girls, right?
"I secretly suspected that was why we were going to meet," said the film's director Richard Linklater, who alongside Efron and co-star Claire Danes paid a visit to the White House on Tuesday.
But when they arrived, there was no Sasha and Malia to be seen.
"They didn't play sick," Danes said.
Instead, the actors and director met with policy advisers, including former actor Kalpen Modi, to chat about arts in public schools, a topic that Modi holds dear.
Despite not meeting the Obamas, Efron and Danes still loved the experience.
"It was still really cool," Efron said, noting he had visited the White House as a kid.
"They do real things in that building," Danes said, who had never been there in all her years of stardom. "They enact change."