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More MAOW Reviews - NY Times, MSNBC, USA Today, more.

NY Times
A.O. Scott

The action in “Me and Orson Welles” takes place in 1937 during a single hectic week bookended by two moments of relative tranquillity in which a boy (Zac Efron) meets a girl (Zoe Kazan). In the film’s final scene, as they stroll out of the New York Public Library, the girl, an aspiring writer, bubbles with enthusiasm about the world of music, art and literature that seems to be opening up all around them. So much is going on! So much to be part of!

Though specific in its period references — the musical choices in particular are fresh and precise — this movie is much more than an exercise in nostalgia for those storied old days, when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker, Orson Welles bestrode the boards of the Mercury Theater and Brooks Atkinson reviewed plays for The New York Times.

Instead, “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater, with a screenplay (from Robert Kaplow’s novel) by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, pays tribute to youthful creative ambition where and whenever it may thrive. The story of a teenager’s sometimes uncomfortable brush with greatness, it is necessary viewing for anyone whose imagination has been seduced by the charms of art.

Which can be a painful, disillusioning experience as well as a source of exhilaration. This, at any rate, is what Richard, Mr. Efron’s character, discovers when he stumbles into the Mercury’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by a bombastic young fellow who lends his name to the film’s title and to so much else besides. “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane” are still in the future, as are the triumphs and brutal disappointments of Welles’s postwar career, but the ego and the brilliance are in full blossom.

They are captured, with a brio and wit that puts most biopic mummery to shame, by Christian McKay, a British actor with a slender résumé and superhuman confidence. His evident relish in the dimensions of this role is a crucial part of the performance. It’s so much fun to play Orson Welles because it must have been at least as much fun to be Orson Welles.

Though perhaps not to work with him. “Me and Orson Welles” spends most of its time backstage at the Mercury, as the cast and crew struggle and stumble toward opening night, alternately buoyed and sandbagged by their resident genius, who is not shy about reminding the company members that they are servants to his vision. He showers them with hyperbolic praise — seeing “images of magnificence” in every actor’s eyes — and then crushes them with brutal criticism.

His loyal partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), endures it all with amused resignation. The others humor Welles, complain about him, try to compete with him or go to bed with him. They are supporting players in the grand drama of his personality. The only peer he might recognize on the set of “Julius Caesar” is Shakespeare himself.

In that production Welles played Brutus — a complicated character, both noble and treacherous. And “Me and Orson Welles” shows him in similarly shaded light, illuminating both his talent and his caddishness. Best of all, the movie allows us to glimpse enough of the rehearsal and performance to see just why the Mercury “Caesar” was a milestone in the history of the modern theater.

Art is glorious. The making of art less so. Richard, cast almost by accident in a minor role, learns some hard lessons about the ways of show folk, for whom sincerity is a higher form of pretending. He befriends Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), marvels at George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), the high-strung British actor playing Mark Antony, and falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), who manages the Mercury and dreams of meeting David O. Selznick.

Sonja is both ingénue and woman of the world, at once a servant of the muse and a calculating careerist, and Ms. Danes is nimble, likable and smart — words that describe the movie itself. While Mr. Efron may not conjure images of magnificence, he does well as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and affable adventurer in the enchanted realm of the theater.

Disenchantment is part of the magic, and “Me and Orson Welles” strikes a persuasive balance between naïveté and cynicism, both of which are necessary to the theatrical enterprise. Art is a fairy tale we choose to believe in, and this movie, a fiction confected about real people, is too good not to be true.


Jake Coyle

As an icon prone to caricature, Orson Welles ranks right up there with Truman Capote and Ray Charles.
But in "Me and Orson Welles," our view of the great, charismatic director and thespian isn't straight on, but a sideways glance. We see him from the perspective of an aspiring teenager, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who lands a bit part in Welles' 1937 production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theatre in New York.

Welles, then only 22, had just begun to make a name for himself on radio and on stage with his "Voodoo Macbeth," which he set in Haiti. His "Caesar" — "a lean, brutal 'Caesar,'" as he calls it in the film, set in contemporary Fascist Italy — was a sensation. Welles would soon after begin work on "Citizen Kane."

Fame was imminent and Welles knew it.

Christian McKay, a previously unknown British theater actor, plays Welles in Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," and he clearly has the part down pat — the ever-shifting eyebrows, the sonorous, arch baritone, the "old man." McKay's Welles is arresting in its accuracy, though at a certain point its polish keeps Welles under a sheen.

He does, though, convey Welles' mix of genius and — like his "Caesar" — his brutality. He commands his theater company just as he commands our attention. He is enthralled by creation and reinvention, and has little patience for the "agents to his vision."

The lowliest of those agents is Richard, the "Me" of the title. In just one day, he manages to skip away from high school in New Jersey, chat up two attractive girls, impress Welles enough to land a role in "Caesar," and learn how to pay the ukulele. Fans of Efron ("High School Musical," "17 Again") may wonder just what teenybopper optimism can't accomplish?

Richard's path in life is unsure, but he passionately wants to be around theater, movies and music. It's a picture of the artist as a young heartthrob.

Efron has an easy, natural presence on screen and his performance is effortless and confident. But it also doesn't carry much weight, and the biggest problem for "Me and Orson Welles" is that when McKay fades from view and Efron is left to carry the film, it feels slight.

But much of what Linklater has crafted is substantial. The director ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunset," "Waking Life") has a particular talent in chronicling coming-of-age stories and romances with equally levelheaded naturalism. In this case, the romance is with theater, or more generally, the creation of art.

"Me and Orson Welles" cherishes ramshackle rehearsals and backstage banter. Linklater brings out the inner dynamics of the company: Welles placating the ego of his Antony, George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), arguing with his producer and partner John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), worrying about theater superstitions, like that a bad thing must happen before opening night ("some malevolent spirit must be exorcised," intones Welles).

Just before the curtain rises, Welles tells his cast: "Make 'em sweat" — and one wishes Linklater's film had just a little of the same urgency and aspiration.

The wide-eyed Richard — "Junior" to Welles — takes it all in like a fly on the wall. He falls in with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a young aspiring actress working as an assistant to Welles.

Like many in the film, she's bristling with ambition. Dreaming of a career in Hollywood, she's angling to meet producer David O. Selznick — a goal that will easily supersede any relationship that develops between her and Richard.

"Me and Orson Welles" is based on the historical fiction novel by Robert Kaplow. Though the backdrop of Welles and his theater company is based on history, Richard's story is wholly imagined.

The production design by Laurence Dorman is excellent. Though the New York exteriors resemble the fake-looking studio facades of something like "Newsies," the inside of the Mercury Theater — where most of the film takes place — feels true.

Ultimately, "Me and Orson Welles" is about a life-changing brush with fame, a brief moment in time with a swelling star — and the presumed, lasting influence of witnessing the thrill of an artistic life. It doesn't have anything close to the heft of Welles, but it's snappy enough that it might have conjured a wry smile or two from the old man.


Village Voice
J. Hoberman

The most significant American artist before Andy Warhol to take "the media" as his medium, Orson Welles lives on not only in posthumously restored director's cuts of his re-released movies, but as a character in other people's novels, plays, and movies—notably Richard Linklater's deft, affectionate, and unexpectedly enjoyable Me and Orson Welles.
Like Tim Robbins's far less adroit Cradle Will Rock, released exactly a decade ago, Me and Orson Welles concerns a legendary Welles stage production, namely his 1937 black-shirt version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This cut-and-paste anti-fascist spectacle—characterized in its original press material as the "Death of a Dictator" and in a frantic state of revision up until opening night—was the Mercury Theatre's first Broadway show. It was also its 22-year-old director's personal triumph, if more for his bravura use of lighting and bare-bones stagecraft to evoke the spectacle of mob rule than his distracted performance as the bumbling "bourgeois intellectual" Brutus.

Adapted from a novel by high school English teacher Robert Kaplow, Linklater's movie views Welles's achievement from the perspective of a high school student (teenage heartthrob Zac Efron), slightly younger but scarcely less stage-struck or brash. Dubbed "Junior" by Welles (British actor Christian McKay), the lad brazens his way into a minor part as Brutus's lute-strumming page, a week before the play is set to open. "You're not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit," Welles's assistant (Claire Danes) good-naturedly warns him, scarcely out of her teens and pleased to play the worldly older woman. Actually, the callow but competent Junior gets away with quite a bit (up to a point), even as he learns something about performing and human nature—or at least about the nature of Orson Welles.


Chris Caban

In Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, the 14th feature by the prolific indie auteur, British stage actor Christian McKay offers another invocation of the mythos that surrounded the titular American filmmaker. It is an impressive, dominating and completely engrossing performance which McKay, at the age of 34, has refined over the last few years since first inhabiting the legendary martinet in "Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles", a one-man stage show written by Mark Jenkins. No small feat considering Welles was arguably only able to express versions of himself rather than his "real" persona -- a notion that comes up late in Me and Orson Welles, but is nevertheless a key aspect of its densely constructed, immensely entertaining 114 minutes.

In 1937, The Mercury Theater was just the sort of place where youthful ambition and art love could collide, with funding and direction. Owned by Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), the Mercury's interpretation of Shakespeare's "Julius Ceasar" -- with noir trenchcoats and Gestapo uniforms -- would offer a platform for the Welles of Citizen Kane four years later. And in Linklater's film, adapted from Robert Kaplow's novel by Vincent and Holly Gent Palmo, it serves as the unlikely meeting space of Welles and Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a hopeful teen who impresses the grand wizard by playing a drum roll and singing the Wheaties radio jingle.

This impromptu display of talent inspires Welles, then only 22, to cast Richard in the role of Lucius, Brutus's servant. Sparks then fly when he meets Sonja Jones (a marvelous Claire Danes), the Mercury's secretary, who herself serves Welles and Houseman in the hopes of meeting David O'Selznick. As everything else falls to pieces, they fall for each other...or so Richard believes. Finding a friend in Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and a cautionary tale in George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), Richard endures a baptism of sorts into the world of art created by Welles's tyrannical vision.

Linklater, working with production designer Laurence Dorman, gets the look of the time right. He also keeps things moving briskly without sacrificing resonance or thematic complexity. Me and Orson Welles is a film about the early rumblings of an elusive legend covered in the smoke of his own mythology, but it is also a proudly self-reflexive and well-balanced look at how a piece of art is made.

"We're waiting for Orson," Marsan says often, and one senses that Linklater wants this to reflect not only on the director's impact on modern filmmaking, but also the revelation of who he really was. He wisely leaves that last question wide open: Nothing less than a treatment on-par with I'm Not There would suit such mercurial and complicated a figure as Welles. Linklater's fantastic film does that complexity justice, while also refusing to soften the moral and emotional pitfalls of artistic collaboration. The audience will likely dislike Welles when he refuses to give credit to an exhausted handy man. But then again, did Jackson Pollock give credit to the paint company?


The A.V. Club
Nathan Rabin

The problem with films about theater is that they tend to feel theatrical. They’re less about human beings than about actors pretending to be actors pretending to be human beings. That’s a central weakness of Richard Linklater’s disappointing new period drama Me And Orson Welles, a terminally bland coming-of-age story about a pretty young man with the world’s most awesome after-school job. The featherweight trifle gives us a busy assemblage of familiar theatrical types—the womanizing actor, the vain diva with an almost preternatural grasp of how she’s being lit at any given moment, the cast cut-up, the imperious impresario, and ingénues male and female—then pitches its performances unabashedly to the rafters. Its poor players are shameless hams on and offstage, wrapped up in dramas of their own devising.  

Zac Efron plays a dreamy high-school student who bluffs his way into Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, winning a role in its daring modern-dress production of Julius Caesar, which recast Shakespeare’s scheming Romans as contemporary Fascists. The life lessons begin when Efron falls for production assistant Claire Danes, a brassy career girl who broadcasts rather than hides her burning ambition. She’s going places, and will hitch her wagon to whoever can get her there quickest. 

Efron has yet to learn that smiling pretty is merely a component of acting, not its entirety. He makes for a supremely passive lead whose chemistry with Danes is nonexistent; he seems infinitely more enamored of his image in any reflective surface than in his ostensible love interest. Playing an appropriately majestic Orson Welles, newcomer Christian McKay boldly fills the charisma vacuum the two leads leave. McKay is blustery, over-the-top, and wildly theatrical, but so was the man he’s portraying. Me And Orson Welles casts off the musty air of a handsomely mounted, tastefully dull HBO TV movie only when McKay takes center stage, as when he shocks and delights his fellow cast members in a mediocre radio show by incongruously inserting a lyrical passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into their hacky little drama. Me And Orson Welles belongs to that loveable show-biz subgenre about colorful kooks mounting a big production, but it’s strictly a one-man show.


James Berardinelli

Me and Orson Welles is about the theater, or at least the theater as it was in the 1930s. Based on the semi-fictional novel by Robert Kaplow and set in New York City around the time of the opening of the Mercury Theater, the film is rich in period detail. It chronicles not only how Welles put together his now-famous stage production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar but how it was to work around and with the temperamental genius. In a departure from his usual intimate, character-based fare, director Richard Linklater paints on a broad cinematic canvas that brings Depression-era Broadway vividly to life.

The lead character is aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a teenager who is picked by Welles (Christian McKay) to appear in Julius Caesar even before he graduates from high school. Welles, however, is a notoriously difficult boss. One moment, he is cruel and dismissive. The next, he acts like a mentor, bringing Richard with him to a radio studio and allowing him to observe as Welles improvises lines in a live audio play. Since Richard's role as Lucillus is relatively minor, the young performer is given ample time to observe the behind-the-scenes goings-on at the Mercury. Two famous actors, Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), are involved in the production, and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) is Welles' partner in the business side of the venture. For Richard, however, the Mercury's real attraction, aside from the opportunity to work with Welles, is Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles' secretary. He pursues her with the dogged single-mindedness of a young man in love.

In a courageous move, Linklater devotes the better part of the film's final half-hour to exacting re-creations of scenes from Julius Caesar, providing a view of how the play might have looked on Opening Night. There's not enough of the play for someone unaware of its general trajectory to understand what's happening, but those who have seen or read it will be able not only to follow the excerpts but be able to understand the uniqueness of Welles' vision. The unfortunately downside of this approach is that it narrows the target audience considerably.

The ostensible star is Zac Efron, who chose this role as an opportunity to step far away from the parts that have made him famous. (It's difficult to imagine many members of his core audience enjoying Me and Orson Welles.) His heartthrob status effectively submerged, Efron is solid although unspectacular. It's difficult to see it when Welles calls Richard a "natural born actor," but Efron's performance is workmanlike and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Likewise, Claire Danes snaps off her dialogue like a whip and exhibits sufficient screen presence to avoid being a liability. The love affair between Richard and Sonja, despite being underplayed, is believable. Both Efron and Danes, however, exist in the shadow of Christian McKay, whose portrayal of Welles captures the essence of the great man: impatient, egotistic, arrogant, brilliant, and a perfectionist. It's all there - the good and the bad - presented with such astonishing force that it's impossible for McKay to not dominate every scene in which he appears. (McKay, before making this movie, had played Welles in a stage play.) Physically, McKay bears a passing resemblance to Welles, but his voice is uncannily exact - so much so that, if you watch with your eyes closed, the experience is almost eerie. Not since Anthony Hopkins took over a movie with his supporting role in The Silence of the Lambs has a secondary actor so dominated a movie.

Me and Orson Welles is designed primarily for those who are intrigued by theater, curious about Welles, or some combination of both. The film's storyline is strong enough to provide structure for the production, but it is dramatically limited. Despite Linklater's directorial credit and Efron's name at the top of the marquee, Me and Orson Welles has taken fourteen months since its September 2008 world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival to obtain a limited United States release. Many distributors passed on the movie not because they weren't impressed by its craft but because the potential audience is restricted. This is a specialty movie. Those in its demographic will fall under its impressive spell, but it will be difficult to find enough of those individuals to make the production profitable. McKay alone is well worth the price of admission and, if Me and Orson Welles proves to be too small for the Academy to notice, his performance could go down as one of the great overlooked ones of the decade.

Many tremendous movies could be made about Welles, whose larger-than-life personality would easily lend itself to an epic. From his critically adored stage productions to his War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast to his cinematic debut (and pinnacle), Citizen Kane, to the travesty of The Magnificent Ambersons, few 20th century personalities were more colorful. For Me and Orson Welles, we are presented not only with a minor slice from the man's life, but one that is shown through the eyes of another. It's an effective way to introduce the essence of Welles without overwhelming the viewer with his life story.

John P. McCarthy

Richard Linklater's paean to the performing arts, from Robert Kaplow's novel, pits an omnivorous genius against a high-school kid. Set backstage at Welles' nascent Mercury Theater in 1937, the fictional tussle is hardly fair or surprising, but we're reminded that an illusion needn't be deep to be effective. The budding thespian (Zac Efron) cast in a modern-dress production of "Julius Caesar" seems too polished, which is partly why the movie's first two-thirds are eminently watchable yet unexceptional. During the final act, however, sparks fly when he's bested by Welles, adroitly channeled by Christian McKay. There are worse ways to come of age than slathered in greasepaint. GOOD DRAMA.


Spirituality and Practice
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Seventeen-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) lives at home with his mother. Although still in high school, he's developed a great love for the arts and sneaks off to wander around the Broadway theater district. Thanks to a rare combination of luck, charm, and chutzpah, he lands a small role in a 1937 modern-dress production of Julius Caesar at the new Mercury Theater. It is being directed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the "boy wonder" who at 22 is already well-known for his artistic genius. He is playing the part of Brutus but spends most of his time criticizing or meticulously assessing other actors, including Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). The theatre's harassed manager, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), has his hands full putting out all the fires started by Welles, who rides roughshod over people's feelings and will not take any criticism.

Richard is dazzled by this creative fireball and thrilled when he is told by Welles that he has a "God-created" talent for acting. The director even takes him along on a ride to a radio performance in his ambulance vehicle designed to get him everywhere fast. That, of course, is a running gag with the actors who spend hours waiting for Welles to show up; he is invariably late. Richard is also pleased by the flirtatious attention of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles's theater assistant who has the reputation for being an "ice queen." As he finds out in getting to know her better, she has a talent for looking out for herself in a world where all that matters is who you know.

Me and Orson Welles is directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Fast Food Nation, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life) who is always an consummate entertainer no matter what the genre of film or its subject matter. The keys to the success of this funny and appealing coming-of-age drama are the casting of Christian McKay to play Orson Welles and the High School Musical star Zac Efron to play Richard Samuels. They give the film its energy, wit, verve, and panache. In a magical moment together on route to a radio performance. the director lets down his guard for a few minutes and shares with Richard his admiration for a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons.

Richard's ethics are put to the test in more than one confrontation with his demanding boss. But the play is the thing for him, and he learns his lessons well. Christian McKay pulls out all the stops in his razzle-dazzle depiction of Welles, who is a divine gift to the world as an artist but hell on earth to be around as a self -absorbed, cocky, and treacherous human being.


USA Today
Claudia Puig

Awkward syntax aside, Me and Orson Welles would be a much better movie if the first part of the title were excised, or at least scaled back.

The story pertaining to Orson Welles (terrifically played by Christian McKay) is far more compelling than what happens to the young guy who gets unexpectedly swept up in Welles' brilliant circle. Had the movie, which is set in 1937, centered more on Welles and his seminal production of Julius Caesar, it would have been fascinating. But as a theatrical coming-of-age story, it's slight, only sporadically enjoyable and sometimes corny.

McKay's performance is a revelation. He nails Welles' imperiousness, charm and vocal cadences, and even bears a strong resemblance to the iconic actor/director. He is thoroughly convincing as Welles and electrifies the screen when he's on it.

The Me in the title refers to a teenage aspiring actor named Richard, played by Zac Efron. Unfortunately, too much time is spent with Efron, a likable but lackluster presence.
By a stroke of luck, 17-year-old Richard wins a part in Welles' Caesar. He strolls by New York's Mercury Theater one afternoon, and the next thing he knows he's drafted to play the ukulele (which doubles as a lute) and given a role opposite Welles' Brutus.

Over the course of a week, Richard, dubbed "Junior," is pulled into the impetuous Welles' inner circle and finds romance with an older woman (Claire Danes). Efron is hampered by occasional mumbling and lacks the chemistry with Danes to make their connection believable. And Richard's chance meeting with an aspiring writer (Zoe Kazan) is stilted.

Much of the movie is bathed in a golden glow, and the score helps to conjure the era. But some of the dialogue sounds modern.

This is not one of director Richard Linklater's better films. It lacks the intimacy of Before Sunset and the sense of celebration of The School of Rock. The movie is worth seeing for McKay, but it sometimes feels like two movies cobbled together. Efron's Richard is somewhat of a cipher. It's unclear why he's drawn to acting, though he eventually realizes that he is committed to being a part of the artistic world.

Welles would use the same encouraging words to pump up his chosen players. At one point he praises Richard's "magnificence." Though Welles doesn't consistently enthrall as a tribute to the stage, McKay is a magnificent surprise.


Us Weekly
Bradley Jacobs

Zac Efron steps away from High School Musical and into this Great Depression-set tale. It's a risky move that doesn't quite pay off. He plays a naive actor who lands a role in a 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, directed by a wunderkind named Orson Welles. (Though the Citizen Kane legend really did helm the play, this story is fictitious.) Filled with backstage drama and a love triangle involving Welles’ assistant (Claire Danes), the film makes for a pleasant diversion. Alas, Efron comes off as an amateur next to Christian McKay's spectacular portrayal of the brilliant director.


Stephanie Zacharek

Whether filmmaker and actor extraordinaire Orson Welles knew he was great from the beginning or made himself great out of sheer will is one of the great mysteries of show business. And with his charming if whisper-weight "Me and Orson Welles," director Richard Linklater does little to either illuminate or puncture that mystery: He allows, simply, that Welles was a genius creation of either God or man.

The picture, based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, takes place during the course of one week in 1937, just as Welles is getting his Mercury Theater off the ground. Welles, played by English actor Christian McKay, is putting the final touches on an ambitious production of "Julius Caesar," in which he's cast himself as Brutus. Impulsively and casually, he hires a school kid and wannabe actor, Zac Efron's Richard, to play the role of Lucius. The main requirement for the part is that Richard should be able to play a ukulele disguised as a lute, though he also learns, from Welles' comely and ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), that the actor previously cast in the role had been unceremoniously dismissed by Welles, not because of a personality conflict, but because the younger actor had a personality, period. Welles may pretend to share the stage with his fellow actors, but he leaves no doubt this is his show.

And so Richard begins a whirlwind week that involves rubbing shoulders with other actors in the Mercury troupe, among them Joseph Cotten (channeled beautifully by James Tupper), who's busy sleeping his way through every girl in the Manhattan phone book, and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who wears a veneer of coolness but who's really a nervous wreck. Richard also, of course, can't help wanting to woo Sonja, even though a young, aspiring writer he's just met, Zoe Kazan's Gretta, falls more safely into his league.

Whether filmmaker and actor extraordinaire Orson Welles knew he was great from the beginning or made himself great out of sheer will is one of the great mysteries of show business. And with his charming if whisper-weight "Me and Orson Welles," director Richard Linklater does little to either illuminate or puncture that mystery: He allows, simply, that Welles was a genius creation of either God or man.

The picture, based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, takes place during the course of one week in 1937, just as Welles is getting his Mercury Theater off the ground. Welles, played by English actor Christian McKay, is putting the final touches on an ambitious production of "Julius Caesar," in which he's cast himself as Brutus. Impulsively and casually, he hires a school kid and wannabe actor, Zac Efron's Richard, to play the role of Lucius. The main requirement for the part is that Richard should be able to play a ukulele disguised as a lute, though he also learns, from Welles' comely and ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), that the actor previously cast in the role had been unceremoniously dismissed by Welles, not because of a personality conflict, but because the younger actor had a personality, period. Welles may pretend to share the stage with his fellow actors, but he leaves no doubt this is his show.

And so Richard begins a whirlwind week that involves rubbing shoulders with other actors in the Mercury troupe, among them Joseph Cotten (channeled beautifully by James Tupper), who's busy sleeping his way through every girl in the Manhattan phone book, and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who wears a veneer of coolness but who's really a nervous wreck. Richard also, of course, can't help wanting to woo Sonja, even though a young, aspiring writer he's just met, Zoe Kazan's Gretta, falls more safely into his league.

* Continue Reading

This is a standard coming-of-age story set in a milieu that's anything but standard, and that's what keeps the picture's motor running. Linklater is nothing if not a versatile director, having helmed the rapturous bookend love stories "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" as well as raucous mainstream comedies like "School of Rock" and "Bad News Bears," not to mention rotoscope-animation experiments like "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly." Even so, "Me and Orson Welles" is something altogether different for him, a gentle, semi-historical period piece. The picture is enjoyable, if somewhat meandering -- the direction could use a bit more zip, a more urgent sense of momentum.

But the script, by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., gives the actors plenty to work with, and Linklater's approach seems to have been to stand back and let them run with it. Danes, as a college-educated woman who's toiling away at the bottom of the showbiz ladder and doesn't want to stay there, walks a deft line, capturing her character's vulnerability and shrewdness. Eddie Marsan -- so wonderful as the hotheaded driving instructor in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," -- makes an elegantly mannered, eternally nervous John Houseman.

The Sun King at the center of it all is Welles himself. This is hardly a flattering portrait -- as he's shaped and played here, Welles is a cruel game-player, probably meaner and more self-centered than even the preternaturally confident Welles really was. Still, McKay and Linklater betray a great deal of affection for this boastful genius, and McKay, with his baby-faced features and satiny voice, is wildly charismatic. This is the kind of performance that flirts with the scary truth that arrogance can be sexy.

So where does that leave Efron, who not so long ago starred in the shamelessly entertaining "High School Musical 3" and who now yearns to shed his heartthrob image? It's possible that Efron is too good-looking for his own good: Watching him, I always have to fight the urge to dismiss him, just because it seems unfair that any human being should have been born that cute. But I always come away thinking he's an actor who's likable enough now, and who may be able to grow even more. And I fear for him as I fear for any young actor who can also sing and dance: Those are gifts that few movies have much use for these days.

And so when Richard, upon learning that Sonja's last name is Jones, brazenly serenades her with a line from Rodgers and Hart, I wondered what he might be able to do with the rest of the song. "Have you met Miss Jones?" he croons to her, and she waves him away, having heard that line a million times before. Maybe she's heard it a million times before, but we haven't. "Me and Orson Welles" is a sweet, modest snapshot of a long-lost time when a bold kid with a showbiz dream and a little luck could actually get somewhere, and if he could sing and dance to boot, his chances of success would be even greater. Zac Efron fits right into 1937; in 2009, he's a lost boy.


LA Times
Betsy Sharkey

"Me and Orson Welles" is a frothy backstage pass, courtesy of director Richard Linklater, to the early days of the great director (that would be Welles) during a stint as the mercurial head of the Mercury Theater Company in 1937.

Adapted from Robert Kaplow's novel, the "Me" is a teenager whose coming-of-age story unfolds during the staging of Welles' groundbreaking reimagining of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a '30s-era Fascist dictator. The teen in question is Richard Samuels, played by "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron, a senior who slips out of class and into NYC only to get swept up in Welles' retinue, with a small part tossed his way as a bone.

The film's other key players are Claire Danes as the director's whip-smart assistant and sometime lover Sonja; Christian McKay as Welles, who bears a striking resemblance to the man and has a good handle on his pretension and ambition; and Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer and the occasional object of young Richard's affection when he's not mooning over Sonja.

Richard's problem is really Efron's problem too, and thus the film's (which may be why it stumbled around the festival circuit for nearly a year before finding a distributor). The character spends most of the movie trailing Welles around like a puppy, only occasionally biting the hand that feeds him. The role was supposed to mark Efron as a grown-up actor and while he's pleasant enough he remains very much in the puppy-training phase, with Danes and McKay holding on to most of the movie's treats.

Linklater always brings a great sense of place to his projects, whether it's "School of Rock's" classroom antics with Jack Black, the stoner high school students of "Dazed and Confused," or Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wandering Paris in 2004's "Before Sunset." Though the production team gives us a lovely re-creation of the New York theater district circa 1937, the filmmaker truly finds his footing inside the Mercury where the casting, the staging and the catastrophes play out.

But it's the clashing egos as much as the brilliant theater that interests Linklater here. The script, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, has Welles moving through the theater troupe like a shark, feeding on anyone who is weaker than he is, which means everyone. Roles are expanded and contracted with abandon, actors hired and fired, lovers taken and discarded with a pregnant wife not treated much better.

McKay, a British stage actor who was doing an off-Broadway production about the movie legend when casting started, and Danes, whose acting always seems so effortlessly good, are the best things about the film.

But as in life, the presence of Welles never fails to overtake things and McKay's command of the subject is so Welles-ian that when he's in a scene everyone else fades a little. And neither the director (that would be Linklater) nor the film ever quite recover from that.

Tags: me and orson welles, reviews: maow
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