Firmly putting his High School Musical days behind him, Zac Efron stars in this coming of age drama about one boy's experience with the legendary Orson Welles. A million miles away from the bubblegum colours of East High, Richard Linklater's adaptation of the fictional historical novel by Robert Kaplow provides a realistic, if slow burning, look at life beind the scenes of a 1930s play, as Welles prepares to stage his famous recreation of Julius Caesar, assisted by a string of theatre greats.
It's 1937 and wide-eyed, apsiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron) is desperate to carve out a career in the theatre. By a stroke of luck, he encounters a 22-year-old Orson Welles (McKay) on the street outside the Mercury Theatre and manages to nab a small but pivotal role in his hero's latest play. But, with just one week until opening night, he soon learns that Welles is an unpredictable and difficult man who refuses to take criticism or appease the people around him. Making his life slightly easier is ice queen Sonja Jones (Danes), a production assistant who takes him under her wing and later initiates a passionate romance.
While the story is told through the eyes of Richard, it's evident that the indispensible protagonist of the movie is Welles. His larger-than-life persona steals every scene, whether he is indulging in extra-marital affairs, commandeering ambulances for easy transport or simply lolling in the background. Newcomer McKay, who first played the role on Broadway, is stunning in his ability to nail the mannerisms, characteristics and voice of the theatre legend, while also exuding a strange vulnerability, as evidenced in his relationship with Richard. Quite simply, when he is on screen everyone else fades into the background.
That being said, Efron more than manages to hold his own in an unfamiliar genre. He shines in his transformation from awe-inspired hero worship to a more grounded relationship with Welles, while his friendship with quirky Gretta (Kazan) - an oddball writer who recites odes to Grecian urns - is peppered with humour and genuine affection. The only downside is his often unconvincing romance with Sonja. We're told repeatedly that she is the most desirable woman in the company but her cold exterior and bland personality make it difficult to see why. While both actors undoubtedly deliver solo, they fail to spark as a couple, highlighted by their initial rendezvous at Welles's secret home where Sonja plays the seductress and Richard looks like a lost schoolboy.
Based on real-life events, with the exception of the fictional Richard, the plotline at times becomes muddled, as viewers are assumed to have some knowledge of Welles and his contemporaries. Nevertheless, you can't fail to be impressed by the luscious portrayal of the theatre as Welles stages his amazingly modern adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. Linklater's attention to detail is extraordinary, from the visible spit of the over-pronunicating actors to the subtle lighting and dramatic special effects. He guides us through the entire process of staging a play, from the rehearsals, to superstitions, to dangers with scenery, before we are paid off with a glorious final performance, visually stunning in its simplicity and featuring a monologue by Welles and bittersweet song from Richard.
There's no doubt that Me And Orson Welles is a sharp contrast to Efron's Disney days and will probably not appeal to his younger fans. But, as as Will Young's starring turn in Mrs Henderson Presents proved, there might still be something here to attract the less obvious audience and perhaps open the life and times of Orson Welles to a new generation.
Three out of five stars
Whatever your opinion of Zac Efron, his casting as the lead in Me and Orson Welles was a savvy decision on the part of his director, Richard Linklater. Playing Richard Samuels, a wide-eyed 17-year-old who snags a tiny role in Welles' legendary 1937 production of Julius Caesar, the floppy-haired star of High School Musical could attract audiences who have never heard of Welles (and would prefer never to have heard of Shakespeare). As a bonus, they'll even get to see him play the lute.
That's pretty much all the excitement you can expect from this faithful re-creation of a seminal moment in theatrical history. More deserving of admiration than love, Linklater's pleasant-enough period piece connects the standard coming-of-age dots to impressive performances and a production design of astonishing authenticity. With the back lot of England's Pinewood Studios standing in for New York City and the Isle of Man's beautifully restored Gaiety Theatre standing in for the famed Mercury, this Brit-centric production is almost too perfect: It looks beautiful, but the artifice is distracting, as though a room at Madame Tussaud's had suddenly sprung to life.
Based on Robert Kaplow's carefully researched novel, the screenplay (by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo Jr.) follows the fictional Richard as a chance street encounter with Welles (played by the English stage actor Christian McKay) catapults the arts-obsessed teenager into the minor role of Lucius. Unfolding during the final week of rehearsals — and, we are led to believe, in the first week of the virginal boy's adulthood — the movie gazes indulgently as Richard crushes on Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater's ferociously ambitious Jill-of-all-trades.
Dispensing both practical advice and sex, Sonja is the romantic target of every man in the company, including the married Welles, whose pregnant wife requires regular shielding from the great man's infamous indiscretions. Dazzled by this grown-up world and the theater luminaries around him — including John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (an astoundingly look-alike James Tupper) — Efron's Richard soaks up the drama and basks in his mentor's mercurial attention.
At 22, Welles was already a celebrated stage and radio star, and an arrogant, inexhaustible genius, and McKay's marvelously effortless impersonation is the movie's chief pleasure. Driving around in an ambulance to beat the traffic, spraying artfully-lit spittle with every impassioned speech, his Welles is believably charismatic and airily self-centered. The movie, like the theater company, revolves around him.
From archival photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, Linklater and his crew painstakingly re-create the stunning, deliberately fascist costuming and staging of the play (which Welles had retitled Caesar: Death of a Dictator). With Marc Blitzstein's original score pulsing in the background and McKay's Welles performing the role of Brutus, the brief excerpts reproduced here are unnervingly powerful.
The movie around them, however, is disappointingly fluffy, a weightless confection perfectly suited to Efron's abilities. Appearing in virtually every scene, working his bangs and eyelashes to the max, he's a likable device that never congeals into a real person. When his character bumps into fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (played to perfection by the British Museum), she asks him what he does. "I'm sort of an actor," he tells her. He won't get any argument from me.
Big egos make for big entertainment - whether we love or hate the person behind the haughtiness.
That said, Orson Welles was one of the biggest egos of the 20th century, which immediately puts Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles in a winning dramatic position.
Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, this film attempts to reconstruct a very specific and rather historic moment in time as Welles prepared his 1937 Mercury Theatre version of Julius Caesar - a production considered so successful and revolutionary, it cemented Welles's reputation as the Great White Way's wizard.
Kaplow's novel researched the entire backstory behind Caesar's stage evolution, as well as the assorted players surrounding Welles at the time, but to keep things dramatically buoyant, Kaplow created the character of Richard Samuels, an ordinary kid with dreams of becoming a bona fide performer.
Samuels is all fiction, but in the body of Zac Efron, there are several reasons to embrace the historic interloper, including the mere fact it's Zac Efron, one of the most likable screen stars to grace the sound stage since Matthew Broderick took his famous day off as Ferris Bueller.
Efron manages to come off as sweet and kind without being cloying, and that's a surprisingly difficult balance to strike for a young actor stacked with Disney credits.
It also happens to be the perfect character foil for the character of Orson Welles, a larger-than-life talent who consumed the life energy of those around him for his own gain, but still managed to share a fraction of the limelight - and the profits.
Welles was a man possessed by his dramatic vision, and in this rather loving - but far from fawning -portrait of the late, great dramatist and film director, we're given a front seat to his creative process.
Using records from the era, the movie pulls us into rehearsals, just as our fictional, wide-eyed teenager Richard (Efron) fast-talks his way into a job playing Lucius, a bit player with an important ballad, and a handful of lines in the political tragedy.
Winning over the tempestuous Welles with his quick smile and musical skills, Richard soon becomes the company's de facto mascot. He befriends Welles' posse, including Joseph Cotten (Dartmouth N.S. son James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), but it's his connection to the office ``ice queen'' Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) that finally establishes him as a threat.
Richard develops a crush on the office accountant and manages to seduce the object of every actor's desire, but when he learns Sonja is Welles' turf, he refuses to back down.
The tussle over the gal leads to a showdown between the young gun and the slightly older dramatic sage, but even though this narrative line is given centre stage, it's not really the main attraction.
Given the importance of this time in American theatre arts, it's the creation and evolution of Caesar, and gaining insight into Welles' dramatic tool box, that really makes this movie notable.
Moreover, watching English actor Christian McKay fully inhabit the large frame of the iconic Welles is a bit like entering a time machine. McKay nails the voice and brio of the legend, which could have felt too much like a standup stunt without a tight rein from Linklater.
The script could have offered a little more profundity and a little less self-conscious chatter, given these were some of the most intelligent theatre people of the era.
Then again, maybe that's just what we all thought.
Maybe they were just a bunch of shallow, vain and self-obsessed people who stumbled into greatness through an act of panicked surrender.
This movie makes no conclusions either way - which is good. What would have made it better is a better argument from both sides.
Three and a half stars out of five
News of the World
LOVELY Zac Efron. Look at him up there. Awww.
See the way he gazes into the distance, hair just so, jaw set firm, crystal-blue eyes dancing with the joy of life.
Makes you want to slap the handsome off his smug little face, dunnit?
Zac made his name, of course, in the High School Musical series, playing an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk on the basketball team. And he was great at it. But two big questions remained. What on earth would he do next - and, more importantly, would he stink at it?
Then Zac made 17 Again, a film that stretched him all the way... to playing an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk on the basketball team. So the big questions are still a-lingerin'. But consider them now answered, people. Because Me And Orson Welles is Zaccharine's coming-of-age party.
And who's he playing? An all-singing, all- dancing high-school hunk... OK, OK, but this time it's different. Honest.
In a year of CGI, 3D and crash-zooms, Me And Orson Welles is a bizarre little one-off about a young wannabe actor in 1930s New York City. It's shamelessly old-fashioned, hugely unfashionable and absolutely brilliant.
And it's hard to know who'll be most confused by it. The Bebo-brained Efron mob or fans of director Richard Linklater - who's famous for his experimental stuff that, by and large, DOESN'T involve sticking a Disney heartthrob into a chirpy drama set on Broadway. Zac plays 17-year-old Richard Samuels who (I swear he actually says this) has been in "mostly shows at school".
Seeking his fortune in the Big Apple, Rich meets legendary director Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and lands a small part in his production of Julius Caesar, where he falls for one of the cast members - the dazzling Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
Linklater plays it as a coming-of-age tale but also as a love-letter to the theatre, and it works brilliantly on both counts. But while Zac's the biggest name on the cast, it's Christian as Orson who makes the biggest impression. I've never even heard of the guy before. Where's he been hiding? A cloning facility underneath Xanadu, would be a fair guess, because - truly - you might as well be watching the big man himself.
The guy's a humungous, fire-spitting, window-rattling pillock. He's also a bully but he's never a baddie - a genius balancing act that Christian pulls off perfectly.
Fact is, I'd back this Orse (Ithangyew) for a place on the best-supporting-actor- Oscar shortlist.
And in the face of such a top-quality performance, poor Zac just can't compete. The little lamb DOES hold his own though, and a glowing cast - including top turns from Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly and Ben Chaplin - means there's not a weak link in the chain. Also, full marks to everyone involved in rigging up the striking 30s New York setting. That's hard enough when you're filming in present-day NYC. But the fact Linklater managed it while shooting on the Isle of Man and a couple of sound stages at Pinewood elevates it to ruddy witchcraft.
In a way, Me And Orson Welles is the perfect Christmas film - it's light, it's fun, it leaves you with a spring in your step, and Vince Vaughn is nowhere to be seen. So catch this before the multiplexes get swamped with this year's serious big hitters - ie Sherlock and Avatar - and you'll see one of the most unexpected delights of 2009.
Congrats on this one, Zac. I'd happily watch you play an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk any time.
Which is just as well, cos at this rate, you'll be doing it till you're 50.
Teen heartthrob Zac Efron makes a smooth and engaging transition from fluffy high school flicks to comedy drama.
And in the safe hands of director Richard Linklater he confirms his star quality in this breezy and engaging film centred on the larger-then-life talent of Orson Welles. Cute 'n' charming Efron has made his name in teen-friendly flicks such as the High School Musical films and recent hit 17 Again. But here he is up alongside acting heavyweights Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan, and he more than holds his own.
The film itself is an intriguing and entertaining period romp that may well bemuse teen girls out for a little more of the Zac Efron action they have been used to.
He does, though, get to sing... but only a little bit, and it is part of the on-screen production of Julius Caesar. So not really the fluffy pop stuff fans of the High School Musical films are used to. But those coming to the film because they fancy a well-made drama or are fans of Welles should prepare to be impressed.
The witty and nimble script does a great job of recreating the era of 1930s Broadway, and Brit newcomer Christian McKay is a revelation as big Orson.
He nails the whimsical charm of this pioneering performer. Charming, offensive, annoying, inspiring and always brilliant, Welles was the real thing - and this film is a great tribute to his skills. The story weaves the production of Julius Caesar with Richard's coming of age as a man as he falls in love with the elegant but ambitious production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes, very impressive).
The showdown comes as he has to battle Welles for her affections (no chance there then... Welles always wins) while also having to come to terms with his impending debut on the Broadway stage.
Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) directs with grace and style, paying attention to the nostalgia but also allowing his actors to shine and revel in their larger-than-life roles.
Wall Street Journal
Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," a cheerfully fatuous coming of age comedy, was adapted from a novel by Robert Kaplow. The setting is New York in 1937. That's when the preposterously precocious Welles, at the age of 22, was directing his Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar," a daring adaptation set in fascist Italy. Strictly speaking, Welles isn't the movie's central character; the Me of the ungrammatical title is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student who inveigles Welles into casting him as the lute-playing Lucius. Still, Welles is Welles. He was always at the center of everything, and he certainly is here. What's more, he's played by an excellent English actor, Christian McKay, who bears, or somehow simulates, a facial resemblance to the great man, and nails Welles's expression of pouty, aggrieved amusement. But Mr. McKay is in his mid-30s, and doesn't conceal it, so what's the point? By taking the kind out of wunderkind, the movie also removes the wunder.
For those who care less about Orson Welles and more about the heart-throbby Mr. Efron, the point is clear: put the young star of Disney's "High School Musical" (who just turned 22 himself) into a nostalgic period piece and give him a chance to develop his acting chops. But Mr. Efron's fix on the period suggests a GPS struggling in a low-signal area, and the movie becomes an affectionate, name-dropping exercise in historical mutilation. Among the members of the Mercury Theater, John Houseman is played by Eddie Marsan, Joseph Cotten is played by James Tupper and Norman Lloyd is played by Leo Bill. Mr. Lloyd, who was born one year before Orson Welles, is an irrepressible raconteur and an endlessly zestful observer of the movie scene. I dare not imagine what he'll think of "Me and Orson Welles." Though, no, I dare.
Director Richard Linklater is the definition of niche filmmaker. I have no idea who gambles their money to make his diverse films (think Waking Life, Before Sunset, Fast Food Nation, and A Scanner Darkly) that barely register on the general population's radars, but I can't say I mind.
Me and Orson Welles, a recounting of Welles' famed staging of the Shakespeare tragedy Julius Ceaser, is in that boat. Instead of developing a cohesive and engrossing narrative, Linklater composes a love letter to theater, spearheaded by the larger-than-life Orson Welles. What could have been a performance of exaggeration or spoof is instead an examination of the charismatic sociopath, elegantly executed by newcomer Christian McKay. It's McKay's turn as Welles and Linklater's depiction of his directorial process that carries the film.
But not all is well and good at the Mecury Theater.
The other half of the film (that would be the "Me" in Me in Orson Welles) is Zac Efron (High School Musical) doing what Zac Efron does best: smiling, looking smug, and hop-skipping his way through the picture. Efron's Richard is a aspiring actor who accidently lands a part in Orson's Ceaser only to see it sweep up his education and romantic life.
But Efron's out of place in the movie; his teeth are too white, his face too glossy for a gritty setting like 1930s New York. Maybe he should have skipped the tanning salon for a week? While he can certainly croon a number that would have ladies fainting, Efron can't hold a candle to McKay's spitfire Welles, or even Claire Danes as Sonja, Welles' assistant at the Mercury. It's not a good sign when you wish you were watching Newsies.
There's a reason it took two 600 page books to tell Orson Welles' story (which I highly recommend): he was part creative genius, part self-destructive nightmare. A great character. Me and Orson Welles succeeds in establishing that, but bores when its focus shifts to Efron's flighty coming-of-age problems. Come on Zac, didn't you know you couldn't go head-to-head with Unicron!
Rope of Silicon
Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is a hard one to put your finger on. It's got comedic elements, a baseline dramatic framework and then doesn't fully dedicate itself to being a coming-of-age story. However, despite my inability to nail it down in a nutshell, it's a great film with one of the better male performances of 2009.
Starring as the titular "me" is Zac Efron playing Richard, a wannabe actor who coincidentally runs into a 22-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay) coming out of the newly-opened Mercury Theatre where he will produce, direct and star in his adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Words are said and Richard finds himself with a part in the play and rubbing elbows with Welles on a day-to-day basis as something of a friend-at-arms-length over the course of the next week, culminating in the opening night production.
The central focus is undoubtedly Richard as we see the movie through his eyes, but McKay is dominating as Welles in a performance that steals the show. I'd say this makes everyone else look meek in his shadow, but perhaps that's exactly as it was with Welles, a man that knew exactly what to say, what to do and when to do it. All in an effort to ensure things are done his way. He comes across as a madman of sorts and if you're in his presence you feel blessed. It's as if you are a part of his genius. After all, the film is set in 1937, one year before Welles was known for his "War of the Worlds" broadcast and most certainly before Citizen Kane. That said, McKay manages to bring to life elements of a Welles we would come to know and hear in the future.
The lengths people will go to please him and better their position in the industry are most reflected in the performance given by Claire Danes as Welles's production assistant Sonja Jones. Throughout most of the film Sonja speaks of her anticipated meeting with mega-producer David O. Selznick and proves nothing is taboo when it comes to protecting the longevity of your career.
Efron's Richard is the wide-eyed optimist in all of this as he gets more and more comfortable in his new surroundings. After all, it's much better than his "other" life he as a 17-year-old student, even though he hasn't given up on that life just yet. After all, if Me and Orson Welles is truly about anything, it's about youthful possibilities and the chasing of dreams. Even Welles is a youngster in this story.
It's about how you can have the golden ticket in your hand and how it can blow away just as quickly. The message, of course, is to not let the lost moment be the end of you as there is still always more to do.
Linklater co-wrote and directed one of my all-time favorite films in Before Sunset and there are many others to his credit that adorn my DVD shelf space, and again he has put together a film worth adding to that collection for repeated viewings. It's a film I suggest you take in at the theater and demand at your local art house cinema. If anything, it is a must see simply for McKay's performance alone.
The inaugural production of the Mercury Theatre had to make a suitably bold statement. In what was then a radical departure from tradition (but has since become conventional), Welles recast Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Fascist Europe. Though the Mercury’s production of Caesar: Death of a Dictator was truly groundbreaking, the true star was Brutus, played by company cofounder and artistic director Orson Welles.
Though in 1937 the Great Depression continued unabated while Fascism spread across Europe, it was still a heady time for one teenaged actor who witnesses the chaos of Welles’s creative process firsthand in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which opens this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.
British actor George Coulouris had the lead role of Mark Antony. Joseph Cotton had a small part as Publius. Yet the two actors best remembered from Welles’s celebrated Caesar, were of course the director himself, and the young Lucius, who serenaded Brutus in a pivotal late scene. In Linklater’s film, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, that young actor is a wide-eyed Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron), who yearns to be part of the New York smart set. However, working for the tempestuous auteur would be an education in and of itself for the young actor.
Welles can be charming, but he is also a demanding taskmaster. Though married, he has quite the roving eye. Yet his genius compensates for his arrogance—at least up to a point. In some of the film’s most insightful scenes, the brash Welles seems to understand on some level that he is just one failure away from a major karma blowback.
Given the renowned figures associated with the Mercury, Linklater had a number of casting challenges, but none was greater than the larger-than-life Welles. Yet, in choosing the virtually unknown Christian McKay, he found an actor able to approximate Welles’s incomparable presence, without descending into mere impersonation. Discovered while performing in the very off-off-Broadway production Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, McKay captures both the cadences and intensity of the Welles so familiar from his classic films.
In another tricky bit of casting, Eddie Marsan’s small but important supporting turn as John Houseman, the great British character actor (by way of Hungary), is absolutely pitch-perfect. His Houseman is an island of modest dignity amid the bedlam loosed by Welles’s destructive genius. While it is an even smaller role, Canadian actor James Tupper is also quite convincing as Joseph Cotton.
In a way, it is rather appropriate that High School Musical star Zac Efron would have the lead in a film about the capriciousness of show business. In fact, he is relatively likable as young Samuels. Unfortunately, his love triangle rivalry with Welles for the affections of the director’s cold-bloodedly ambitious assistant Sonja Jones forms the weakest link of the film. In truth, Claire Danes’s Jones is decidedly unsympathetic and far less attractive than Samuels’s prospective girlfriend, Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan).
The film is utterly unlike Linklater’s prior work (including films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused), but he clearly has a keen understanding of Orson Welles’s place in cinema history. He keeps the action moving along fairly jauntily, while paying knowing homage to Welles’s brilliant but checkered career.
Production designer Laurence Dorman masterfully recreates 1930s New York and Jools Holland’s arrangements of vintage swing standards nicely evoke the right period vibe. Indeed, that sense of time and place is one of the handsomely assembled film’s greatest strengths. Ultimately, it is an effectively realized valentine to 1930s Broadway and the mercurial talent of Orson Welles. It opens this Wednesday (11/25) in New York and Los Angeles.
The L Magazine
The problem is there in the title. Anyone who cares about 20th-century American theater and cinema would welcome a film about Welles, but who's this "me" to whom we're supposed to pay equal attention? A dull seventeen-year-old drama geek named Richard Samuels? Played by Zac Efron?!
This being a film by Richard Linklater, it's only appropriate we view the genius director of the nascent Mercury Theatre from the eyes of a passionate young 'un. But Welles himself was only 22 in 1937, making it all the more frustrating that screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (adapting Robert Kaplow's novel) steer away from the make-or-break backstage drama of the Mercury's anti-fascist re-imagining of Julius Caesar to focus on Richard's stilted coming-of-age tale. Richard worships Welles and learns harsh romantic lessons via the great man's opportunistic mistress (Claire Danes)—yet with every close-up of the brutally uncharismatic Efron we see not the outsized emotions of a naive teenager willing to do anything for art and love, but a Tiger Beat cover with a Depression-era hairstyle.
Yet whenever British actor Christian McKay commands the screen as Welles, Linklater's film comes alive. Employing a perfect physical and vocal imitation, McKay evokes the arrogant, manipulative, intimidating, yet undoubtedly brilliant Welles, never better than in a scene where the cigar-smoking, baby-faced actor glides into a radio studio, uses a sleight-of-hand trick to flirt with a secretary, and then improvs a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into his script. Cut out the "Me and" and Linklater's entire film could have been this magical.
Santa Monica Daily Press
Taylor Van Arsdale
When I tell you the feel-good, comedic, coming of age flick for the holiday season takes place in New York during the 1930s you might incredulously think, "Yeah, right." So brace yourself for this next revelation — it also involves William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" as envisioned by iconic American actor, Orson Welles.
It's 1937 and for aspiring actors the Mercury Theatre is the place to be. In "Me and Orson Welles," Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a plucky actor with chutzpah who ingratiates himself into the world surrounding legendary actor Orson Welles (brilliantly played by newcomer Christian McCay) as he prepares his version of "Julius Caesar," billed as "Caesar: Death of a Dictator."
Efron is spectacular and charming. His blue eyes sparkle with unbridled idealism as he delves deeper than we've seen in any "High School Musical." We've all been this character at one point or another in our lives so you can't help but root for him. When he wins the role of "Lucius" he inquires as to what became of the actor whom he's replacing. Another cast member gently warns, "He had a personality problem with Orson — meaning he had a personality." And so begins the protagonist's inherent struggle: will he simply "go along and get along" to get what he wants or will he stand up for the ideals in which he believes? The film's denouement answers this question — which I'm not going to give away.
Welles, however is quite the character; he grandstands, is both mercurial and brilliant while manipulating his cast and crew, has affairs with most of his leading ladies, and keeps an ambulance waiting outside so that he may travel uptown whilst avoiding the crunch of traffic. Samuels, like those around him, is clearly under the spell of the larger-than-life Welles.
A scene at a radio station demonstrates the breadth of Welles' talent, which far exceeds those of his fellow thespians. During a ride uptown, (in his ambulance, of course) he reads to Samuels text he has memorized from Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons." Once at the radio station, he invites Samuels to watch and see "how it's done." As the live show begins, Welles veers off script, seamlessly injecting his rehearsed "Ambersons" dialogue. The radio show's producer, who clearly has no idea what's going on, lauds Welles for his extemporaneous take. We know the "extemporaneous" improvisation is the result of Welles' calculating genius.
The film, which addresses many of the myths surrounding the iconic Welles, is largely fictionalized from Robert Kaplow's eponymous novel. For Linklater, "the biggest piece of the puzzle was finding the right guy to play Orson." A few months after optioning the project, Kaplow sent Linklater an e-mail, letting him know there was, "a guy performing a play in New York at this 50-seat theatre … called 'Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.'" Linklater flew to New York and knew he had found the perfect actor to portray Welles on screen. Also of note are Claire Danes as the ambitious Girl Friday, Sonja Jones and James Tupper who captures perfectly the role of Joseph Cotton.
Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" has an exuberance about it; an idealistic energy — enhanced by the pace of Manhattan, circa 1937. Writers Vince Palmo, Jr. (a former Santa Monica resident) and his wife, Holly Gent Palmo have constructed a real quality film. It's not simply a great film, but a great film with a heart.
Movie City News
In Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, a director whose films I usually like, takes on a highly ambitious subject that really appeals to me -- a portrayal of the astonishing youthful theatrical triumphs of the 22-year-old Welles, his adroit and urbane (and long-suffering) producer John Houseman, and of their ingenious, experimental 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar -- and does them all really proud. Hail Caesar! Hail Orson! Hail Houseman! Hail Mercury players, past and present, real and recreated! And of course, Hail Richard -- Linklater, that is.
Linklater’s movie is wonderfully acted, written and directed --a charming, exhilarating and exciting evocation of a thrilling era and some magnificent show people. At its center is one of the most extraordinary, and truly brilliant film performances of the year: the young actor Christian McKay’s amazing evocation of Orson Welles at 22.
Other actors who‘ve played Welles in the past, like Vincent D’Onofrio in Ed Wood or Angus Macfadyen in The Cradle Will Rock, have tended to get part of the persona: the resonant voice, the impish face, the huge physicality. But McKay gets it all. He looks like Welles, sounds like Welles (catching the rhythms, delivery, style and timbre, if not quite as deep a basso profundo), smiles like Welles, roars like Welles, and, whether sliding into radio’s The Shadow or into Shakespeare’s Brutus, noblest Roman of them all, even acts like Welles.
This is an utterly convincing portrayal physically. And it also, crucially, suggests Welles’ inner being: the extraordinary genius and intimidating energy, his vaulting ambition and also his demonic, self-destructive qualities. We can believe that McKay‘s Orson is capable of this Julius Caesar and the Kane to come. And we can also believe that he’s a hedonistic conniver capable of betraying his friends (like Houseman), tyrannizing his cast and crew and wounding his own career. Is an amazing job, a thrilling feat of humanity-catching. If this year’s “best actor” Oscar nominations don’t include McKay‘s Welles, they’ll be a fraud --much like the 1941 Hearst-fueled mass Oscar snubbing of Citizen Kane and (except for the script) of Welles himself.
Almost equally impressive are the films’ John Houseman, played with the right blend of cogency and exasperation by Eddie Marsan, the obsessed driving teacher of Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky. And Ben Chaplin as the tormented patrician George Coulouris (Kane’s Thatcher, playing Antony in the play), Leo Bill as the elfin prankster Norman Lloyd, and James Tupper, whose Joseph Cotton captures the Wellesian actor/crony‘s elegance and bemusement almost as perfectly as McKay catches Welles.
Zac Efron’s young theatre student Richard Samuels, the witness to all this (after Welles picks him to play Brutus’ Lucius on the street before the Mercury) is a passably charming and likable job, not an impressive performance, like some of the others, but good enough to pass. Perhaps we shouldn‘t carp. It’s not Efron‘s fault that he got a box-office dreamboat ranking for that dopey, trivial smash hit, High School Musical. There are two other fictional characters here that also strike a chord: Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adle, the aspiring New Yorker short story writer whose music shop meeting with Richard kicks off the story, and Claire Danes as the friendly “ice princess” Sonja Jones, whose sexual power over all the “Caesar“ men, triggers a climactic flare-up.
Linklater, whose own triumphs range from Slacker to Before Sunrise to School of Rock, is a sometimes wonderful filmmaker, a comic humanist who’s obviously fallen in love with his terrific subject: young Welles and the world around him. Linklater tries, mostly successfully, to give us the creative ferment of American society, drama, and media in 1937, fueled by the Depression and the gathering war clouds in Europe, in a welter of pop politics both radical and reactionary, of burgeoning social change and cultural upheaval.
At its edges, is the movie‘s witness, young Richard. And, at its center is the young Orson, the amazing prodigy who conquered American radio and the stage in his early twenties and then headed West to Hollywood and Citizen Kane. That’s in the future here, but not too far in the future; at one point we seem to see Welles struck and mulling over visions of Kane (or something to top Caesar) in his mind.
But meanwhile, there’s Caesar, with the young Richard as our observer -- watching as Welles keeps the company in a constant state of creative excitement and panic: dropping and adding scenes at will, conducting multiple love affairs, racing by hired ambulance to his radio Shadow gigs, nurse-maiding and fathering and seducing his cast, and giving Caesar the contemporary resonance -- with a fascist takeover-- that he and Houseman (who has to straighten out all his messes) are sure will create an explosive success.
What follows is one of the best backstage dramas ever, a valentine to the theatre like Marcel Carne’s and Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise, and a lovely distillation of a wondrous time. (Not the least of Me and Orson Welles‘s pleasures is the superb period old record score, heavy on Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and other '30s jazz greats.)
I loved Me and Orson Welles and I hope it attains at least a modest success too, a warm connection to the audience (especially the movie buff audience) that it richly deserves. Sadly, when I went to the L. A. opening night screening at Landmark, the crowd was tiny, a fraction of the packed houses elsewhere for the gloomy and mediocre New Moon and the exciting but ridiculous 2012. Me and Orson Welles has it all over either of those bloated hits, topping them in everything but nonstop world destruction and neck-biting. Like McKay’s Welles, it puts on a great show with a seemingly modest budget. It shows us again what we love about the theatres, media, pop and high culture, and, finally, the movies. It also shows us, through McKay’s alchemy, the spitting image of a giant of them all.
Three and a half stars
Blog: One Guy's Opinion
It’s not so much a performance as an impersonation, but Christian McKay does an extraordinary job of channeling the literally mercurial young Orson Welles at the beginning of his post-federally sponsored Broadway career in this fanciful recreation of the circumstances surrounding his triumphant staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in 1937. “Me and Orson Welles” is a curious project for Richard Linklater—a very conventional period piece from a director who usually works with edgier fare. But if you’re interested in Welles—and what cinephile isn’t?—it’s an amusing trifle. If not, well, there’s always “Dazed and Confused.”
The modernized, spare, heavily edited version of “Caesar” that Welles fashioned for Depression-era audiences also confronted with the rise of new dictators in Europe was the initial production of his newly-formed Mercury Theatre Company. And as Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, working from Robert Kaplow’s novel portray them, the final days of rehearsal were creatively chaotic and the first performance an overwhelming success.
As is often the case in such stories, the narrative is presented through the eyes of a naïve novice—in this case one Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a art-loving student who wanders into the company and is abruptly hired by the flamboyant, imperious Welles—at no pay, of course—to take a small role in the play. What follows is the boy’s assimilation into the troupe, which includes such well-known players as womanizer-leading man Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), cynical comic Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), intense manager John Housman (Eddie Marsan) and full-of-himself George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin).
But there are problems. Though Welles takes Samuels under his wing, even introducing him to his radio work (which largely finances the Mercury), the boy is ultimately nonplussed at the great young man’s cavalier treatment of everyone, especially Sam Leve (Al Weaver), the designer he refuses to give proper credit (just as he would later minimize—at least in the opinion of Pauline Kael—the contribution of Herman Mankiewicz to “Citizen Kane”). Even more distressing to the boy is the casual use Welles makes of all the women in his vicinity even though he’s married—something the youth can tolerate until the star’s grasp extends to Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the company’s beautiful general factotum whom Richard immediately falls for. But since she’s an ambitious girl willing to make compromises to advance, even though she likes the boy, it’s a good thing that Richard meets another, more suitable girl—frizzy-haired aspiring author Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), whom he actually helps get a story accepted by the New Yorker.
Though one has to admire Efron’s decision to bypass teen froth for the role of Richard, it must be admitted that he’s not quite right for the part—so handsome and self-assured that the character’s supposed nervousness never comes through. Still, he’s eager and attractive, as is Danes, who hits the right mixture of sophistication and cheek. Their relationship, however, and the one between Samuels and Adler, really play second fiddle to the material surrounding the colorful Mercury troupe. Tupper, Bill, Marsan and Chaplin might not bear the uncanny resemblance to the figures they’re playing that McKay does to Welles, but they show the right spirit. Linklater directs them all with genuine affection, if not much energy, and he benefits from a strong physical production that captures quite well the ambiance of Depression-era New York even though the picture was shot (very well by Richard Pope in atmospheric widescreen) in London and on the Isle of Man, of all places. Kudos are due production designer Laurence Dorman, art directors Bill Crutcher, David Doran and Stuart Rose, set decorator Richard Roberts and costume designer Nic Ede, as well as Michael J. McEvoy, who provides a jovial score supplemented by pop tunes of the time.
The picture includes substantial excerpts from the finished “Caesar,” and as so often happens in such theatrically-based stories, they don’t register as strongly as was obviously intended. (Even in “The Producers,” the scenes from “Springtime for Hitler” just weren’t as funny as Mel Brooks thought.) But even in those sequences, ultimately the movie’s sparkplug is McKay, who mirrors the young Welles not just in looks but in manner and socks across his combination of blustery showmanship, artistic genius and absolute self-regard. Welles certainly doesn’t come across as an entirely likable person, but he is a genuine force of nature.
“Me and Orson Welles” will appeal mostly to older audiences and especially to buffs who will be fascinated at this portrait, however imaginative, of the young wunderkind who went on to become one of the world’s great filmmakers. For them it will prove an agreeable divertissement, easy to take—and equally easy to forget.
Similarly, find a winking allusion to historical/artistic precedent in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, as the titular wunderkind (Christian McKay) wonders aloud how he could possibly top his theatrical production of Julius Caesar in 1937. It turns out to be a relevant theme, though, when Welles, in need of a Lucillus, hires Richard (Zac Efron), a precocious lad of seventeen eager to jumpstart his artistic career at the Mercury. Efron valiantly attempts to carry a film on his own accord (despite a certain blandness, he proves that being the only bearable aspect of the High School Musical series wasn't quite a fluke), but he's nothing compared to the self-conscious artist/brute looming over his character. While it's tempting to say that everything and everyone are overshadowed by McKay's pitch-perfect imitation (one that captures the artist in all his legendary brilliance, ego, and cruelty), it's really the spectre of Welles himself that haunts Me and Orson Welles. The picture's about the hope that a proximity to genius will force it to rub off on the rest of us--a point never made clearer than when our boy brushes a writer friend's manuscript against Keats' Grecian Urn. For all its conclusions about the virtues of going your own path and forging your own memories, Richard's story ends up completely absorbed by Welles, or at least the reputation that preceded him; he's a regular Holly Martins, an unknowing child-amateur destined to fail against the devil's charisma. (Even Claire Danes' Sonja, the objet d'amour of the piece and a major point of contention among the central players, is merely a pale imitation of Alida Valli's Anna Schmidt.) Me and Orson Welles feels like it belongs on the stage--and maybe that's appropriate, but it doesn't forgive the stiltedness of it. What's more, rather than act as a reflection of the titular artist's work, it seems like it would prefer you not give it a second thought when Welles' own tales of great but flawed men are there for the taking. When was the last time you saw Citizen Kane, anyway?
Blog: Joan and Melissa
Our dear friend, and now guest blogger at Joan & Melissa, Helena, went to see a preview of the new Zac Efron film, Me and Orson Welles. Here's a glimpse at the goings-on!
Earlier this week I was treated to a private screening of Me and Orson Welles and was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved the movie! Knowing little about Orson Welles other than Citizen Kane, I went into it with an open mind, hoping to learn something new about such an iconic film legend. By the time the movie was over, I could understand why Welles has garnered such a lofty reputation as an eccentric filmmaker.
The film stars Christian McKay as Orson Welles – who was a dead ringer, by the way – and Zac Efron as a plucky actor who lands a role in Welles’ fledgling production of Hamlet. Now, I’m no screaming tween – but Zac was flat out awesome in this role! He really stunned me with his acting here, and made his character so likable that I found myself rooting for him throughout the entire movie. Claire Danes also co-stars as Welles’ ambitious assistant who quickly takes a liking to Zac’s character. I haven’t seen her in much lately, and I thought her role was refreshingly playful here.
This was a great period piece that really captured the excitement of the theater and the whole process all of the actors went through in order to put Welles on the map as a director. After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A session with director Richard Linklater, Christian McKay and Zac Efron. Christian was charming in his retelling of his “discovery” by the director, Zac dodged a potentially awkward marriage proposal on behalf of an audience member’s niece, and director Richard Linklater discussed the process of creating a film around such an engaging character. All in all, it was a fantastic experience, and I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone interested in learning a little more about Orson Welles!
Director Richard Linklater is becoming an increasingly difficult talent to pigeonhole. His filmography spans contemporary comedy not miles away from the likes of Chris Columbus and Ivan Reitman (School of Rock, for instance) through to bizarre graphic novella adaptations (A Scanner Darkly) to the mish-mashed post-modern brilliance of Slacker. Versatility, it seems, is Mr. Linklater’s forte, so it shouldn’t really be all that surprising to see him once again venture into new territory and helm a 1930’s drama-comedy adapted from a bestselling novel by Robert Kaplow which revolves around Orson Welles’ legendary production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at the Mercury Theatre.
Early marketing and press buzz for the film may lead you to believe that Me and Orson Welles is a purely straight-jacket affair, a no-nonsense drama serving as the perfect vehicle for the ever-popular Zac Efron to prove his worth as a ‘serious’ actor and escape from the shadows of Disney. Fortunately this is not the case, as whilst there is plenty of drama (of the most theatrical variety) present in Welles, it is also a film dominated by strong comedic performances and a wonderfully breezy, light-hearted tone which, whilst never stepping into the farcical hilarity of, say, Bullets over Broadway, still keeps everything consistently entertaining and frequently good for a laugh.
All of this does not mean, however, that Mr. Efron does not get to demonstrate his acting chops and prove his salt as a leading man in something aside from the teen fare he’s made his name in. As Richard (the ‘me’ of the title), Efron manages to convey the perfect balance of innocent determination with just enough romantic ambition and boyish naivety to really cement him as the figure the audience can latch onto and most empathise with – after all, like us, he is thrown into the world of 1937 New York theatre a relatively newcomer, not quite ready for the drama and inflated egos that inevitably follow. Sinfully handsome, utterly likeable and really showing that, after a splendid comedic turn in 17 Again earlier this year, he can also handle more mature and serious roles with real aplomb, Me and Orson Welles further cements Mr. Efron’s position as one of the most promising and capable rising stars working in the industry today.
The same level of praise can be heaped on the majority of the ensemble cast that Linklater and his producers assembled for the film, including British veterans Ben Chaplin in a sublimely snide and contemptuous turn, and the ever-reliable Eddie Marsan as the despairing manager trying to frantically handle the increasing pressure and stresses of getting the performance of Caesar up and running and desperately keeping Welles in line. Claire Danes puts in a no-frills performance as Sonja, Welles spunky, ambitious assistant who, naturally, ends up as something of a love interest for Richard.
However, despite the wealth of talent on display, they are all overshadowed by a barnstorming, tour-de-force performance by relative Brit newcomer Christian McKay, in, remarkably, his first film appearance. As Orson Welles himself, McKay commands practically every scene he appears in – a hilarious, bombastic force of nature who fires people on a whim, rides in ambulances to travel quicker (“because there’s no law that says you have to be sick to ride in an ambulance”), flares into an artistic rage with very little provocation, and shamelessly womanises with practically any female who gets within arms reach. Not since Heath Ledger’s oscar-winning turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight has a supporting actor threatened to so completely dominate proceedings – and whilst it is not so severe as you feel his absence when he is not on-screen (Efron and the others do much too good a job to let that happen), you’re nonetheless constantly looking forward to his next appearance and the outrageous claims or bursts of arrogant genius that may follow.
It’s a good thing then, with so many strong performances, that the films script and Linklater’s direction are smart and tight enough to do justice to the talented cast and excellent source material. As with the novel, it is the brutal honesty of the world of aspiring talent in the entertainment industry which really rings true as the credits roll, and, whilst I don’t wish to spoil too much, I will at least say it is comforting to watch a film which does not auto-pilot to the expected Hollywood ending but rather something altogether more poignant and relevant.
Particular mention must also go to the visual effects team, costume and art department for their excellent work in recreating the period of 1930’s New York. As both Efron and Linklater pointed out at the preview screening where I saw the film, the Mercury theatre itself is no longer even in existence, and that style and era of New York, likewise, is long gone. Additionally, the film was shot almost entirely either on the Isle of Man or in Pinewood Studios, London, so the remarkable authenticity of New York as presented in the film is outstanding. The visual effects and production design are to such an exceptional standard that never once is it noticeable or distracting that you are watching a recreation or facsimile.
In fact, that same ethos and praise could be said of practically every element Me and Orson Welles, and is a fitting way to end this review – for whilst it is at times highly theatrical (though only in the manner intended) and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, it never feels false or constructed. A large, ensemble cast of highly capable talent give a broad range of brilliant performances, led by a career-best Zac Efron and show-stopping Christian McKay, and take us on a wonderful, whimsical journey to 1937, the Mercury Theatre, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the harsh realities of working in the world of drama and entertainment. It is a charming, supremely entertaining piece of work by a versatile and accomplished director, and definitely a film which deserves a lot of attention not only over Christmas by audience members, but in the New Year when Oscar members get their pens and paper at the ready.