What do you say about a movie that proves Zac Efron can act, introduces a master thespian in Christian McKay and launches a charm assault that is damn near irresistible? I say, see it. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) has crafted a thrilling movie about, of all things, the theater. The time is 1937, the place is New York, and boy wonder Orson Welles (McKay) is rehearsing a modern-dress production of Julius Caesar that will set him on the path to legend.
Linklater goes right at the exhilaration of it — you can practically breathe the air of the Mercury Theatre — leaving the grand gestures to Welles. British actor McKay plays the man who would be Citizen Kane in a miraculous act of physical and vocal transformation surpassed only by the way he seems to dig deep into Welles’ conflicted soul. Wow.
Efron takes a more oblique approach, and it pays off handsomely. As Richard Samuels, the only fictional character in the book by Robert Kaplow, from which Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo have carved a dexterous script, Richard is our eyes and ears into Welles’ world. Only 17, Richard blunders into a meeting with the then-22-year-old genius, wins a small role in the play, gets seduced by an ambitious assistant, Sonja (a deceptively perky Claire Danes), and falls under the spell of everything theatrical Welles builds with producing partner John Houseman (the great Eddie Marsan).
The film brims with wonderful turns from actors playing actors — James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd, Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris. But what makes the movie stick, besides Linklater’s pitch-perfect direction, is the way McKay and Efron handle the seduction and betrayal of Richard by Welles. The treachery is sweetly done, of course, but it leaves its mark. Just like the movie.
Film School Rejects
Richard Linklater returns to the big screen after a three year absence with Me and Orson Welles, a jazzy backstage coming of age picture. It’s a fast-moving period piece that chronicles the coming together of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar, it’s first. To borrow the Bard’s parlance, the film’s a lark.
The movie’s ultimate insignificance is not, however, a knock against it. While Me and Orson Welles rarely treads below the surface, it brings verisimilitude to its depiction of the New York theater scene and the world surrounding it, and a sort of classical energy to the proceedings. It’s strenuously old-fashioned, valuing personality and wit over clichéd pyrotechnics.
Fortunately, one of the personalities it so values happens to be the bombastic, brilliant one belonging to Welles (Christian McKay), who lords over the Mercury as his own personal fiefdom, instilling a mixture of fear, contempt and loyalty in everyone therein. McKay looks and sounds exactly like the real person, nailing the regal cadence of his voice and the haughtiness of his physical demeanor. Really, he gets everything down to the smallest, subtlest eye movements. It’s an extraordinary immersion that rivals the legendary portrayals of icons in movies past.
Let there be no confusion: Though Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student dreaming of the world beyond the classroom, serves as the main character, this is McKay’s show. The scenes in which he’s not involved feel like various iterations of filler, mere window dressing before the main attraction shows up. The movie threatens to fly under the radar of a crowded end of the year marketplace, but it’d be shameful were the performance to go unrecognized.
There is the age-old “bright lights, big city” narrative, in which Richard flees the doldrums of school and small town life for New York. There, he audaciously approaches the company outside of the theater and wins a small part in the play. He falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), the secretary, hangs out with Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and gets a front row view of the tumultuous swings in tones and emotions that accompany the Orson Welles experience.
Efron shows some personality as Richard, convincingly adapting to the vocal stylizations and refined dialogue of the period. For the first time, the actor reveals some potential for breaking free from the High School Musical ghetto. He and Danes generate some nice chemistry, but their characters get along too well too quickly, robbing their scenes together of the snappy back and forth we’ve been accustomed to expect of big-city romances of the period. Screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel, imitate Howard Hawksian rhythms in their sculpting of the dialogue, but they never quite evoke the witty complexity of the verbal master at his best.
Still, Richard primarily serves as the audience’s doppelganger, the ticket into the magical world of the Mercury Theatre in its infancy, with the legendary exploits to come still ensconced in Orson Welles’ imagination. The primary attraction of the piece is the opportunity to watch this seminal work come together, to see the rehearsal process develop, to grow to understand Welles’ methods as a director and an actor and become acquainted with several other legendary individuals. With the rich corduroy browns that define its visual style, streets bustling with travelers and newsboys and elaborate recreations of city landmarks of the period, the film offers a vision of an era rarely seen on screen that aligns perfectly with its most famous past representations. In fact, Linklater’s work serves as an affectionate throwback, consciously made without much originality, in every way but one: McKay’s performance, which has an intense immediacy that’s all its own.
The Upside: Christian McKay is an amazing Orson Welles, nailing every facet of the legend’s physical demeanor and personality.
The Downside: The movie’s pretty lightweight, and at times it feels rather insubstantial.
On the Side: The film first showed at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, but the length of time it’s taken to be released is not indicative of its quality.
Shadows on the Wall
While this feels like an autobiographical coming-of-age movie, it's actually a fictional story set among real people. And it's brought to vibrant life by a superb performance from McKay as Orson Welles.
Richard (Efron) is a 17-year-old wannabe in 1937 New York, determined to get into the groundbreaking Mercury Theatre company run by 22-year-old genius Orson Welles (McKay). When he stumbles into a role in their landmark production of Julius Caesar, Richard can't believe his luck. He's working alongside such ascending stars as George Coulouris (Chaplin), John Houseman (Marsan), Muriel Brassler (Keilly), Jopseph Cotton (Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Bill). And he feels even more fortunate when Orson's hard-to-get assistant Sonja (Danes) agrees to go out with him.
Linklater takes a strangely stiff approach to the filmmaking, with a jazzy Woody Allen-like underscore trying to build a jaunty tone as the story drifts along. Fortunately, there's life in the dialog, and as the characters begin to emerge they pull us into the events while adding a strong zing of wit. And the film itself becomes a fascinating look not only at Welles' early career but also the backstage workings of a theatre company.
Most intriguing is the insight into how actors hide in their characters and create art with (or despite) their director. Clearly, the film's cast enjoyed the challenge of creating these layers: playing historical people who are playing Shakespearean characters under the leadership of the mercurial Welles. Within this they bring out lively personalities and extremely entertaining interaction. Efron is our entry point into this world, and he gives a strong, likeable performance even when Richard gets annoyingly petulant, forgetting how inexperienced he is both on stage and in love.
But it's McKay who provides the electricity. He might be too old (he looks 30 rather than 22) but he gets Welles so perfectly that it takes the breath away. We understand why everyone hangs on Welles' every word and lets him indulge in grandstanding improvisation. We believe this is a man who will change radio, theatre and film forever. And watching him through Richard's naive eyes is great fun, even if the film can't live up to Welles' genius.
Three and a half stars
Jeffrey M. Anderson
Blustering around the theater, barking orders, gesticulating and generally putting on a show of genius, Christian McKay is the best screen Orson Welles since Orson Welles himself. In this enchanting fictional re-creation of 1937, director Richard Linklater shows Welles at work mounting Julius Caesar for the stage using then modern-day dress. The usual backstage madness occurs, and it's simply magical to watch Welles as he might have actually handled it all. But here's the drawback: Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is actually focused on a character called Richard Samuels, who is one of those "passive observer'" types. He's the young kid who enters this exciting and strange new world so that all the characters can explain it to him (and us) as he goes along. It's a device that Cameron Crowe used in the overrated Almost Famous (2000) and it has never really been very effective. Even the best actor would have trouble fleshing out such a role. But what's worse -- much worse -- is that Richard is played by the super-bland, ultra-forgettable, pretty-boy "High School Musical" star Zac Efron. Between Welles and Efron is about six trillion miles of talent, but Linklater simply chooses to ignore this irony, which suggests that Me and Orson Welles would probably never have been bankrolled without Efron.
That's just about the saddest thing I've ever heard, but the truth is that it's worth sitting through Efron's vacant performance to get to the meat of McKay's performance. Welles was a huge personality, with many, many quirks and defense mechanisms set in place, and like Charles Foster Kane, it's unlikely that anyone really got to know him well. But Linklater and McKay find a chink in his armor and play it to the hilt, making an emotionally fascinating, flawed character of him. There are other characters in this ensemble, of course, including Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who likes Richard, but also nurtures relationships with Orson and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) in the name of her own career. Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, another dead ringer) is here, too. When he's not hobnobbing with stars, Richard also hangs out with fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan); he listens to her with such a vacuous expression on his face that we can't tell if he likes her or is just thinking about lunch. Linklater, who is a most un-Welles-like director, holds all this together with his usual easygoing flow. But, like Welles, he finds his art struggling against commerce and has taken a blow in the form of Efron in order to get his otherwise wonderful film made.
California Literary Review
You can take Zac Efron out of Disney, but you can’t take Disney out of Zac Efron. In director Richard Linklater’s period piece Me and Orson Welles, the High School Musical actor tries to show he can break out of the Tiger Beat mold, but alas, this is not the project that will do it.
The pedigree of filmmaker Linklater, combined with the intrigue of a 1930s setting with legendary director Orson Welles in his pre-Hollywood days feels promising. However, it all goes out the window when in the first nine minutes of the film, Efron belts out a song on the New York City streets like he’s beginning another HSM number.
That’s not to say the audience should get up and walk away. Though Efron may be the Me in the film’s title, British actor Christian McKay as Welles is the focal point. Luckily, his performance carries the movie from beginning to end and makes it worth sitting through.
Based on the novel by Richard Kaplow, Welles stars Efron as Richard Samuels, a student and budding actor who gets swept up in the world of theater when he is cast in a small role in Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Caesar. Young and naïve, Richard tries hard to navigate through Welles’ tantrums, mind-games and mood-swings that range from charming to tyrannical.
Most of the film is your typical ‘cast-rehearsing-a-play’ story and showcases all the different characters that populate the theater including actors jockeying for stage time that Welles keeps deleting in an effort to showcase himself (he plays Brutus). There’s also the self-centered female lead (Kelly Reilly), the set designer (Al Weaver) and Welles’ plucky assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), the latter whom Efron falls for.
Obviously this can only spell disaster as Richard’s teenage heart is not equipped to handle a world where sleeping around for career reasons is practiced and accepted. Convinced he’s in love, Richard is in for a rude awakening which also leads to his downfall.
Holly Gent Palmo’s adapted screenplay weaves historical facts (yes, Welles did indeed put on this play at the Mercury Theater) with fiction (no, there never was a Richard Samuels). Additionally, Welles would have been 23 years old at the time he directed the play, yet McKay’s Welles looks at least 10 years older. McKay himself is 36.
Other than his age, McKay’s Welles is wonderful to watch. He is the heart and soul of this film and provides the gravitas to make the whole thing believable. By the time the movie is finished, you’re already craving a Welles biopic just so you can see how this legendary figure eventually makes his way to Hollywood where as we all know, he goes on to shoot the legendary feature Citizen Kane and marry actress Rita Hayworth among other feats.
Efron as Richard is not horrible. It’s just that his mannerisms are the same in every movie – and he’s done enough work now for it to be noticeable. Efron saunters around like he’s about to break into a dance number. He constantly flares his nostrils and you can see him suppressing the urge to act with his hands by thrusting them in his pant pockets – only to see them moving inside the material!
On top of that, Efron appears to always use the same five different facial expressions to convey emotion. Not because he’s genuinely feeling them as an actor would, but because the script says so. That may work in a Disney movie where the characters are meant to be easily labeled, but if Efron hopes to develop as an actor, he’s got to get more in touch with himself and his own capabilities.
It’s not like he doesn’t have it in him. Earlier this year Efron showed he possessed natural comedic chops in 17 Again, holding his own successfully against such comedic/improv talents as Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon.
Linklater has always been adept in working with newcomers and youngsters in films like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Fast Food Nation and the remake of Bad News Bears among others. Yet here he was not able to successfully take a commercial teen star like Efron and cross him over to an indie pic. Efron squeezes by using his charm and good looks, but as we all know, that can only take you so far.
Two Stars out of Five
NY Daily News
'Me and Orson Welles" will be known best as the film in which Zac Efron - the "me" in the movie's name - took his first, tentative steps beyond the teen market. But it's the second half of the title that matters more.
Surprisingly conventional by director Richard Linklater's standards, this pleasant, low-key dramedy is most memorable for the discovery of co-star Christian McKay.
Technically, though, this is Efron's story, or at least that of his character, Richard. A wide-eyed student in 1937, all Richard really wants to do is act. And not in high school musicals, mind you, but on Broadway.
He gets his chance when Welles (McKay) offhandedly casts him in a soon-to-be-famous staging of "Julius Caesar." As opening night approaches, Richard faces an intimidating list of challenges, from Welles' unpredictable behavior to a growing crush on the elusive production assistant (Claire Danes). There are also run-ins with colleagues like Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who resent his inexperience.
The movie, adapted from a historical novel by Robert Kaplow, makes a point of its own theatricality. The New York we see looks like a set (much of the movie was shot in Great Britain). Large parts of the dialogue feel delivered rather than spoken, and the actors portray characters, like ambitious starlets or smooth ladies' men, that are more recognizable from film than real life.
Likable as it is, however, there is little depth to this project, which Linklater seems to consider a bit of a trifle. And that makes it the perfect choice for a heartthrob slowly inching toward a respected, or at least respectable, acting career.
No one would have remembered Efron's performance if he'd been an unknown, but since it's as amiably breezy as the film itself, no one's likely to denounce it, either.
People will, however, continue talking about British newcomer McKay, whose most notable experience has been portraying Welles onstage. Now that we know he can handle an impersonation of considerable complexity, it will be interesting to see the characters he'll create on his own.
Three Stars out of Five
Time Out NY
Earlier this year, Amy Adams whined her way through Julie & Julia as a modern-day food blogger, when all we really hungered for was more of Meryl Streep’s magically right Julia Child. So take the title of Me and Orson Welles as a slight warning. Yes, the Citizen Kane director figures prominently—and gloriously—in this 1937-set theatrical backstage drama. But in the spotlight, there’s a blandly eager high-schooler (Efron, unable to penetrate the cute), who’s conscripted into the zesty goings-on. Would someone please drag him offstage already? There’s a rising star in the wings.
Britain’s Christian McKay has already played Welles to great acclaim Off Broadway; his impersonation here is nothing short of astounding. Just to be totally clear, this is not the sprawling Mount Orson of the director’s latter years (or even of Touch of Evil). It’s the young phenom who terrorized the radio waves, tore around Manhattan in an ambulance and chased skirt on his way to Shakespearean glory. McKay effortlessly captures the man’s arrogance, sparring with tireless producer John Houseman (Happy-Go-Lucky’s fuming Marsan), but he’s even better with Welles’s sly invitation of a wink, drawing all to his bidding, happily. The voice is uncanny too.
Me and Orson Welles preoccupies itself with some romantic tussles—nice enough, but nothing on McKay’s dynamic moments of ego. Maybe this is a good time to mention that the director is Richard Linklater, usually a lot more versatile. Try to imagine a version of Linklater’s School of Rock that didn’t pivot on the manic music teacher played by Jack Black but instead, perhaps, on his boring roommate. That’s what you have here. Had Welles been in charge, there’d be no contest.
Three Stars out of Five
Imagine you adore a blue-eyed young man with a pert nose and a soft wave of brown hair, and so you get your parents to take you to his latest movie, Me and Some Dead Guy Who Was Famous Once and the boy is even cuter than usual, but there's also this big guy, with crazy eyes and much less docile hair, who talks about Shakespeare (kill me now), insults everybody — the cute boy worst of all — and chews cigars and sometimes when he talks you see actual spit coming out of his mouth? And on the way home your parents start talking about Oscar nominations, which they never did after High School Musical 3 and it turns out that they aren't talking about Zac at all, but Crazy Eyes? Wouldn't that be a major bummer?
Unless, that is, you're more curious about Orson Welles than about the charming but still callow Zac Efron. In the new Richard Linklater film, Me and Orson Welles, a youthful Welles is brilliantly embodied by Christian McKay in one of those, hey-who's-that? performances that tends to draw Oscar talk, even if the film itself isn't much more than an extremely pleasant lark. It is set in 1937, when Welles was just 22 and his ego was better established than his career. His broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was a year away, Citizen Kane four years. But already Welles was keeping multiple mistresses and holding an entire cast hostage to his whims. "The principal occupation of the Mercury Theater is waiting for Orson," explains the young John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
Based on Robert Kaplow's young adult novel of the same name, the story blends fictional characters with real ones. Efron plays a fictional one: 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a high school student who worships Noel Coward and who acts as our main conduit into Welles' world. Welles plucks Richard off the street and gives him a small but crucial part in his version of Julius Caesar, which truly was performed, to great success — in modern dress with a fascist theme — at New York's Mercury Theater that fall.
Spending a week in Welles's orbit, Richard learns how to light a match in the coolest possible way, how to impress a girl and, like Icarus, he discovers what happens when you get too close to a star. He rubs elbows with plenty of real people who were fast becoming Welles' loyalists, like Houseman, Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and radio star Les Tremayne (Michael Brandon) as well as one fictional dream girl, Sonja (Claire Danes), a Vassar grad who functions as the production's girl Friday and occasionally, as Welles requires it, geisha to the resident genius. (Watch an interview with Zac Efron.)
McKay's performance, which marries physical resemblance to internal channeling — he's practiced in this, having written and performed a one-man show called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles — is exceptional. But there's one insurmountable problem: his age. He's 36, and passing for Welles at 22 is more than a stretch, especially when you're up against the world's biggest teenybopper. When Orson and Richard are briefly positioned as romantic rivals for Sonja, it's ludicrous, no matter how much charisma Efron exudes — since our perception of him is as a man in his mid-30s, based on McKay's appearance, it hardly seems like a legitimate context. Sonja is not as worldly as she'd like us to believe — she's all red lipstick and knowing looks — but she and Richard still seem light-years apart in terms of maturity. It doesn't help the plot's credibility that there's something slightly off about Danes — her vivacity is a kettle threatening to boil over — and that we, along with Richard, have already met his far better match, a quirky aspiring writer (the adorable Zoe Kazan) who is his equal in unjaded excitement.
Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) usually sticks to contemporary stories, or ones set in the recent past. (An exception, The Newton Boys, a 1920s-set western, was his least memorable film.) Nothing about Me and Orson Welles suggests a directorial affinity for period pieces. When a vintage ambulance pulls up to transport Welles around Manhattan, you half expect the prop master to pop out and buff the hood with pride. But Linklater's great strength lies in showing how "families" form in unexpected places, especially when it's a question of putting on a show. Here we're witnessing not only genius at work (watching rehearsals, we might doubt this Julius Caesar, but what we see of the opening night is electrifying; that's when you really thrill to McKay's Welles) but also the way Richard falls in love with the idea of theatrical family.
In one scene, Richard is exploring backstage, and we feel his pleasure in his insider status; he's puffed up from it. Then he lights a match to better examine graffiti left by someone who walked these boards in earlier days and inadvertently sets off the theater's sprinkler system, dousing everything, including Welles, who is madder than a wet cat. It perfectly catches the mood of the theater as seductress: one minute, she wants you, she makes you feel blessed, another, she reminds you what a buffoon you are to believe you belong here.
New York Post
It's quite a leap for Zac Efron from the "High School Musical" series to "Me and Orson Welles," a coming-of-age comedy set against the background of Orson Welles' legendary, fascist-themed 1937 stage production of "Julius Caesar."
In truth, this charming, thankfully atypical film by Richard Linklater ("Before Sunrise" and its even more soporific sequel) belongs not to Efron but to British actor Christian McKay, who entertainingly dominates the proceedings as the young, hammy genius Welles.
The spare and foreshortened but powerful Shakespearean adaptation was the first production of the Mercury Theatre, which Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, effectively cast against type) founded after splitting with the Federal Theater following a battle over "Cradle Will Rock."
"Me and Orson Welles" is, in effect, a sequel to Tim Robbins' star-filled, self-important film about "Cradle," but it's far lighter on its feet.
Efron is the audience's surrogate as a 17-year-old suburban lad who lands a small role in the production. He gets lucky with a production assistant (Claire Danes), but also has an eye for a younger writer played by Zoe Kazan (whose grandfather Elia was acting with the Group Theater at the same time).
These actors are playing more-or-less fictional characters, but pretty much everyone else is playing a real person, and it's especially fun if you know the actors they are playing.
Ben Chaplin is the high-strung George Coulouris, Welles' Caesar; James Tupper ("Men in Trees") cuts a dashing figure as future movie star Joseph Cotten; and Leo Bill is extremely funny as the still-extant Norman Lloyd, future villain of Hitchock's "Saboteur" and, still later, Dr. Auschlander of "St. Elsewhere."
There are romantic rivalries and backstage crises aplenty as opening night approaches and everyone (especially the long-suffering Houseman) gripes about the imperious Welles, who tends to show up hours late for rehearsals.
In the end, though, Welles delivers. The film's final half-hour is devoted to a fairly meticulous re-creation of the groundbreaking show -- from original designs and Marc Blitzstein's score -- that fully demonstrates the genius that Welles would eventually bring to bear on his screen masterpiece "Citizen Kane."
"Me and Orson Welles," mostly filmed on London soundstages and an old theater on Britain's Isle of Man, is one of the best pictures about the stage in recent memory.
Three Stars out of Four
Christian Science Monitor
Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is one of the sweetest and most heartfelt movies ever made about a life in the theater. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely followed Linklater's career, which encompasses everything from "School of Rock" to "Waking Life" to the great young-love duet, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." He has both a populist's touch and a humanist's eye. It's a great and rare combination, and it serves him particularly well in this movie about a theater-struck high school teenager unceremoniously ushered into the fabulous world of that sacred monster, Orson Welles.
Quite by chance, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is cast in the bit role of Lucius in Welles's daring adaptation of "Julius Caesar," which is in its final week of rehearsal. (The actors are uniformed as Italian Fascists.) He enters into a world within a world where emotions run as high offstage as on and everyone is in fearful awe of the 22-year-old boy genius (Christian McKay).
Linklater and his screenwriters, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting the novel by Robert Kaplow, showcase the wraparound tumult of putting on a production, and they do it as if this sort of thing had never been filmed before. When Linklater made his "Sunrise/Sunset" films, the first stirrings of love seemed to be taking place right before our eyes. Similarly incandescent, "Me and Orson Welles" showcases an ardor for theater – for life lived at its highest pitch.
For Richard, the theater is also his entrance into a more earthly infatuation. Welles's all-purpose assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) is lusted after by most of the troupe's actors, who also include Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). Bemused by his innocence, she leads Richard on. Gaga from her attentions, he fancies the infatuation runs both ways. What he doesn't recognize is Sonja's all-purpose drive to get ahead. When he discovers her relationship with Welles is more than all-business, she explains pragmatically, "I have to take care of myself," and the words hit him like slaps.
Efron has the sleek, retro look here of a 1930s matinee idol, a young Tyrone Power perhaps. He's charming. The big splash in the cast, though, comes from McKay's Welles. With the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote in "Capote," I have never seen a famous-person performance this accomplished. It's not just that McKay, a British actor who has performed as Welles on stage, looks and sounds uncannily like the real deal. He gives us Welles as a fully formed creation – an enfant terrible with the wiles and mores of an aging roué. This genius is a credit-hogging behemoth whose instinct for the right theatrical effect is as unerring in real life as on the stage (for Welles, the distinction may be moot). Linklater makes you feel exactly as Welles's Mercury Theater players did: They may cower before him and curse him behind his back, but they know that this is the experience of a lifetime. They feel bludgeoned and anointed at the same time.
Welles in this film is so larger than life that, for a while, I was afraid he might become a roaring caricature. But Linklater gives Welles a beautiful, brief sequence where, riding with Richard en route to a radio show taping, he pulls out a marked copy of Booth Tarkington's novel "The Magnificent Ambersons" and drops his guard for a moment. The book, he ventures, "is about how everything gets taken away from you," and the moment is extraordinarily moving not only because we know that Welles years later will direct the film of "The Magnificent Ambersons" (which the studio took away from him and recut). It's moving, and also creepy, because this prodigious young man resounds with a sense of loss he has yet to fully experience in his own life. We think, too, of the losses in his movie career as it unfolded, the botched and unfinished projects. We think of Welles's legendary self-destructiveness that, here, in nascent form, is already gathering force.
But all thoughts of impending gloom are momentarily stayed on opening night, when Welles's production of "Julius Caesar" gets a standing ovation. He mutters to himself, "How the hell do I top this?" The glint in his eye tells us he's not worried in the slightest. Richard, meanwhile, cast off by Welles, remains enthralled. This teenager has just experienced something much bigger than himself. He speaks in the end about how all of life seems to be ahead of him, and you can't help but share in his rapture.
Orson Welles lives again while poor old Zac Efron continues to struggle the first time around in Richard Linklater’s enjoyable tale of board treading, rubbing shoulders with history and first love.
Efron’s Richard Samuels is a mere whippersnapper in 1937 New York, who eyes a career on the stage. His encounter with the now legendary Mercury Theatre Company, lead by none other than theatrical, and later motion picture impresario, Orson Welles, proves fruitful, as he successful charms the notoriously fickle genius and secures a part in his new production of Julius Caesar. He also secures the eye of production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) which brings him into potential conflict with Welles and threatens his place in the troupe.
The tease of Linklater’s film, and the Robert Kaplow source novel, is the opportunity afforded to spend time with a young and as yet unburdened by self-doubt Orson Welles at the point at which he was already daring to experiment, flout convention and innovate. As any self-respecting cineaste knows, this is a path that lead to Citizen Kane in just a few years, still one of the best American films ever made and the best apologia for hubris and arrogance ever committed to celluloid. Here was a man who really had something to boast about.
If Efron’s dimpled youth is a bit of blank canvas, and in Zac’s capable hands he is just that, then that’s not entirely unwelcome, as it allows us to spend more time enjoying Christian McKay’s barnstorming rendition of the boy genius through the teenager’s eyes. McKay, who looks enough like the title character to convince physically as well as psychologically, inhabits Welles so completely that the actor dissolves under the cloak of the Director’s charm, hypocrisy, intellect and wit. “Orson has read everything – he knows everything” Danes reminds the dull eyed youth, and it’s that pressure to perform in the face of a perfectionist whose ego is both fragile as a rice paper condom and yet all consuming, that drives the story – setting up a series of flashpoint encounters in the legendary theatre, as the whole enterprise creaks under the weight of Welles’ expectations and a ticking clock.
Of less interest is the fleeting romance between Samuels and Danes’ Sonja Jones. Danes, who hasn’t always convinced as a leading lady, acquits herself admirably here. Her Sonja is ambitious, touched by mischief and more than a little sassy, so what you may ask, interests her about Efron – who beyond his good looks, is deficient in all those qualities and spends a significant chunk of the running time looking startled with the occasional break for wholesome, and slightly folksy pronouncements on adolescent yearning? It’s a mystery that Linklater never satisfactorily resolves.
But it’s in the period detail and the hint of the Wellsian biopic that the film succeeds. Dick Pope’s photography casts the enterprise in vintage browns and greens and Laurence Dorman’s production design is as evocative as McKay’s performance. In this era of cinema to theatrical conversions, a movie that inverts the trend it very welcome indeed. Welles’ cinematic auteurship is foregrounded with some neat allusions to The Magnificent Ambersons, his butchered masterpiece and his stewardship of Shakespeare’s play. His attention to staging, lighting, the use of music and the dramatic flourish are the qualities that will be deployed to such devastating effect on Kane, Ambersons and later, Touch of Evil. This is the bright side of megalomania. A reminder that in the right hands it produces great artists and in those who aren’t so capable, mass murder. “Let’s rip their throats out” says Welles in one scene, temporarily conflating the career trajectories of both camps. It’s a tribute to the power of his personality that he still does, even when channelled by another actor.
Three and a half Stars out of Four
The question for director Richard Linklater and teen icon Zac Efron is this: Will the tweens and teens who made Efron a nascent superstar when they swooned over his turn as basketball hero turned thespian Troy Bolton in High School Musical follow him as he charts a new path in his career? The 20 year old actor is still in high school in Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, but as a Depression-era youth who crosses paths with a legend he is traipsing through territory light years away from today’s world of cliques, text messages and Facebook pages. Without the kids, the mannered but amusing dramedy’s box office fortunes look moderate, a magnet for mature filmgoers, especially that subset of the audience enthralled by showbiz lore and Welles’ larger-than-life persona. But if the young ones pursue their idol, returns could pick up substantially.
In 1937 New York, Efron is Richard Samuels, a theater-obsessed teen who dreams of someday acting on Broadway. His chance comes sooner than he could have ever anticipated when he stumbles upon 22 year old Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his Mercury Theatre Company. The actor/director/producer takes an immediate shine to the brash youth and casts him on the spot as Lucius in his upcoming production of Julius Caesar, opening one week hence.
What begins as a once in a lifetime opportunity for a kid who has not even started his career turns into an eye-opening, whirlwind education. Certainly, no high school drama teacher could have prepared Richard for an outsized personality like Welles, a capricious egoist who rides around in an ambulance so that he doesn’t have to worry about traffic delays and who regards the Mercury Theatre as a kind of fiefdom. Nor could Richard’s limited experience with high school girls prepare him for a woman like Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’ assistant, herself awaiting her big break, but in the meantime only too willing to encourage a school boy’s crush.
Fellow actors Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) take Richard under their wing during a week in which the entire production seems on the verge of spinning out of control, despite the best efforts of Welles’ partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), to keep it on track. But Lloyd’s and especially Cotton’s counsel can only go so far. Richard quickly bonds with the company, only to discover that the theatrical fraternity he has long imagined is not exactly what it seems and never could be with the unpredictable Welles at the helm.
Efron and the rest of the large ensemble are all excellent, but this adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel lives or dies by its Welles. Linklater chose well in casting British newcomer McKay, and not just because the actor is a dead ringer for—if a good decade older than—the young Welles. More vital to the character than the physical resemblance is the way McKay captures the spirit of the man, his enormous charm, intelligence and zest and also his arrogance, pettiness and volatility. A Who’s Who of great actors have previously played Welles on the screen, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston and Angus MacFadyen, but McKay’s powerful, charismatic performance may be the best yet.
Linklater, who shot most of the film in the U.K., does not attempt to create a realistic portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s. Instead, he adopts a heightened theatricality, which works both for and against the movie. On the plus side, the style emphasizes the wit of Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.’s screenplay as the actors toss the funny, sparkling dialogue back and forth with deadpan aplomb. But the artificiality also underlines the story’s superficiality.
Me and Orson Welles is certainly a buoyant diversion, but also lighter than air and ultimately forgettable. It is pleasant enough and will provide an education to any of Efron’s young fans who do turn up, but McKay’s stellar turn deserves something much more substantial than this trifling bonbon.
Three and a half stars out of Five
Zac Efron can act, people! Okay, so he's not going to win an Oscar for his performance in Me and Orson Welles, but he does take a step away from the tween territory of High School Musical and 17 Again to prove that he can hold his own among more experienced performers.
Efron stars as the "Me" in Me and Orson Welles, an over confident aspiring young actor named Richard whose only prior work includes a couple of high school productions — until he lucks into a bit part in Welles's stage production of Julius Caesar. Richard has a romanticized view of theater, but once he enters Welles's company, he's forced to learn the real nature of what goes on behind the scenes.
Ready to burst his bubble is his new mentor, Orson Welles (Christian McKay). A philanderer and liar with an inflated ego, Welles takes Richard under his wing but knocks him down at the same time. Throw into the mix Welles's tenacious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) who makes goo-goo eyes at the young guy, and it's clear that Richard is in way over his head (even though he seems clueless about it).
British actor Christian McKay as Welles is larger than life — he plays the role as if the director is always acting and putting on a show, even in his personal moments. Welles could be an unlikeable character, but McKay makes him a guy you love to hate. Even though Efron is the more recognizable face and handles his role well, McKay's performance is the one most critics will talk about.
The film is enjoyable, but it fails to pull you in. My biggest concern is that it won't find an audience. Older viewers might appreciate Welles and the music of the era, but the appeal of Efron might be lost on them. On the other hand, Efron's fans might find the Welles element to be a snooze. Honestly, it's probably best suited to those who have a passion for theater. I enjoyed watching rehearsals with the Caesar cast (which features a ragtag mix of faces, including Ben Chaplin and James Tupper). The office politics and mini-breakdowns that take place before the curtain goes up make the film fun.
My advice? If you do choose to see it on the big screen, catch it quickly before it goes to rental.
Three stars out of Five
Blog: Art and Culture Maven
Zac Efron stars as aspiring young actor Richard in this entertaining film set in 1937, inserted into the real life story of Orson Welles' landmark staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In the space of a mere week before opening night, Richard talks himself into a role in the play, has a budding affair with an older woman (Claire Danes as the production manager,) has his heart bruised and his pride likewise against the sharp edges of unabashed ambition and over sized ego.
Efron's solid as the centre of the film and our way into this story about the fragile magic of theatre and some of the realities behind what transpires on stage. He turns in an entirely convincing performance with just the right range from the kind of bravado that gets him the opportunity - as in this scene in front of the Mercury Theatre - to the naive vulnerability that sees him blindsided by backstage politics and the calculated maneuvering of his new colleagues.
If Efron's our window into the story, its heart has to be the brilliant performance of newcomer Christian McKay as a young Welles. We get a real sense of the man's sparkling genius, along with his impossibly capricious, self indulgent persona, the director with a penchant for keeping the entire company waiting while he chases the latest winsome young lady to cross his path. He tells Richard he's a "God created actor", and it sounds like a compliment until he explains the hollowness inside it, the empty space from which the desire to become someone else springs.
Welles' historic production edited the Bard's play and set it in modern times in Fascist Italy. I dabble in a little acting myself, not much, but enough to know that the film handily captures the rollercoaster chemistry of putting on a show, the sense of being at the mercy of a director's whims (sigh!) and of the whole production forever teetering on the brink of disaster. With its peppy pace and a raft of amusing peripheral characters from John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) you won't need any special appreciation of things theatrical to enjoy what really amounts to an accelerated coming of age story. Richard emerges a little older and much wiser, and as history tells the tale, Welles innovative production won him raves from audiences and critics alike, and cemented his early reputation.