Also a great video interview with Peter Travers (of Rolling Stone) popped up:
Love-smitten twentysomethings, suburban slackers, guitar-touting schlubs, scramble-suited undercover narc agents: Richard Linklater has long been the bard of dreamy, disaffected Americans. He’s the poet of Generation X, the down-with-the-kids director who has chronicled their fears, hopes and paranoia with more acuity and empathy than any other filmmaker. His preferred setting – 2006’s A Scanner Darkly the obvious exception – is the here and now. If anyone were to be making a costume drama set in the 1930s, and a costume drama set in theatreland at that, he’d be the last name you’d think of.
Yet here he is, Vince and Holly Gent Palmo’s adaptation of a 2003 novel by Robert Kaplow in hand, conjuring up a candid, canny and somehow optimistic coming-of-age story about a teenager who manages to bag himself a gig working with Orson Welles on the legendary New York production of Julius Caesar that likened the Emperor to Mussolini and whose stark, expressionistic staging captivated Depression-era audiences hungry for art that made the connection between art and politics seem visceral and dynamic.
Tweenie heartthrob Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a New Jersey high-school student who lucks into a minor role on what seems at first to be a shambolic, penny-pinching stage show at the Mercury Theater. This is not the Broadway of big money and shining lights; it’s a semi-decrepit world where actors are paid peanuts if they’re paid at all, the plumbing almost never works, and there are holes in the stage. Success – which most of the performers bitch among themselves is an unlikely outcome – hangs on the ability of Welles to pull everything together at the last moment.
Christian McKay, who starred in a one-man show about Welles entitled Rosebud in 2004, doesn’t so much play Welles as channel him. His cigar-chomping cruelty, galloping creativity, twinkling charm: it’s all here, and often on display at the very same time. Years before War of the Worlds or Citizen Kane, he’s already an unstoppable force, a figure whose arrogance and ad-libbing self-conviction drives actors, technicians and producers up the wall, but whose free-ranging and transformative genius generates an electricity that excites them more than they can easily admit.
McKay portrays him as almost completely ready-made: the biggest role Welles was ever to play, and certainly far bigger than the Roman despot in this production, was Orson Welles. He was aware of his own magnetism, exploited it without guilt, and saw it as a useful tool with which he could leverage creative autonomy from the moneymen and power-brokers who ran Hollywood.
The incredible thing is that he’s meant to be barely 23 in this film. He’s significantly younger than McKay (born 1973), yet looks and acts as if he’s generations older than Samuels. With such charisma and presence, qualities on which, in subsequent decades, he was inclined to coast, it’s easy to understand why one of the theatre staff advises the newly-arrived Samuels: “You’re not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit.”
McKay’s Welles dominates every scene in which he stars. When the drama moves outside the theatre’s intense, sexually-charged eco-system, the film instantly shrivels. Linklater’s big mistake is to top and tail the central story with a couple of whimsical exchanges between Samuels and an aspiring New Yorker writer Gretta (Zoe Kazan); they chat, discourse about their ambitions, and seem on the brink of a minor affair. But nothing really happens, and the tightly-coiled rhythms and tensions that Linklater and his editor Sandra Adair have so carefully created, plummet.
Efron, surprisingly to those of us tempted to dismiss him as a gleaming-toothed commodity fashioned by canny PAs and marketeers, is actually very effective in his co-leading role. At first, his good looks and pre-existing celebrity threaten to derail the film: we watch him so closely that we almost forget to watch the world through his eyes. He relies on his blinding-white smile a little too often, but in some ways his pre-Method acting matinee-idol attractiveness is perfect for the role.
His Samuels is set up as a mini-Orson – spontaneous, curious, improvisatory, full of charm – but, barely able to recite his few lines of dialogue and shaky when it comes to strumming on his ukulele, he fatally lacks either the talent or the levels of refined Machiavellianism of his mentor. He does though get the girl – Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who is both a hyper-ambitious would-be producer desperate to meet David O Selznick and the lust object of all the male actors in the production.
Danes, often a rather tense, inflexible actress, is excellent here, simultaneously shrewd and needy, an ice maiden and soft-centred. Ben Chaplin, playing George Coulouris, a thespian highly strung to the point of snapping, also offers a carefully modulated and witty turn.
Me and Orson Welles succeeds because it isn’t really an account of a heroic victory in the face of defeat. It isn’t even a celebration of Leftist popular theatre in the manner of Tim Robbin’s Thirties-set The Cradle Will Rock (2000). If anything, by stinting on the politics of this production, it makes the first-night crowd’s enthusiasm for it seem a little odd.
No, while Linklater is interested enough in the pre-war period, he’s not obsessed by it. He takes what could have been a rather ossified and back-slapping piece of dramatic history and from it creates a tale of youthful ambition, spurting hope, the seductions and cruelties of the creative process. In other words, he has made a characteristic Richard Linklater film. And Richard Linklater films are characteristically very good indeed.
High School Musical heart-throb Zac Efron proves again that he's more than a pretty face in this period charmer, but the performance you'll remember to the end of your days is from an unknown British actor called Christian McKay.
It's one of the best films yet by Richard Linklater, a patchy director whose output has ranged from the joyously commercial (The School Of Rock) to the inanely pretentious (Waking Life), via such sensitive but verbose art-house fare as Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
Me And Orson Welles marks out new territory for him: a period feel-good film.
It's partly a youthful romantic comedy, partly a ritesofpassage movie about a young man finding his way in the world of the arts and relationships, and partly an old-fashioned celebration of theatre.
It works best as the latter, which may be a disappointment to Mr Efron's loyal teenage fans,
but makes for an entertaining and unusual experience for grown-ups.
It's 1937. The 'me' of the title is Richard (Efron), a high-school student who bluffs his way into an unpaid bit-part in a new production of Julius Caesar at the messy, underfunded Mercury Theatre in New York. But this is no ordinary production. It's the potentially ground-breaking but dangerously under-rehearsed brainchild of 22-year-old director Orson Welles (McKay).
For all Richard and the rest of the cast know, they may be putting on an embarrassing flop. We watch Richard embark on an awkward backstage affair with attractive but ambitious Mercury production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) and do so with some trepidation, since she is clearly more interested in climbing the greasy pole of theatre than having a handsome but immature boyfriend.
In the meantime, Richard meets Gretta (Zoe Kazan) a girl who's more his own age and an aspiring short-story writer. It's a weakness of the film as romantic comedy that Gretta is scarcely less self-obsessed than Sonja. A stronger script would have made her a better match for Richard.
It must also be said that Efron, while an energetic performer with loads of boyish enthusiasm, has a hard veneer of professionalism that doesn't mesh perfectly with a character who's meant to be as awkward as Patrick Fugit's schoolboy journalist in Almost Famous.
Efron may not have sold his soul to the Devil, but he does look as if he's leased a part of it to the Disney Corporation.
So why did I like the film so much? Quite simply, it's the finest portrayal of backstage theatre life in years and far superior to the last film that set foot behind the scenes of an Orson Welles stage production, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock (1999).
Elegantly adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from a semi-fictional novel by Robert Kaplow, its nearest relation in recent cinema would be Shakespeare In Love. And that's not a bad thing.
It also contains a performance that deserves to be a frontrunner at next year's Oscars. Not since Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs has a supporting actor so dominated a movie as Christian McKay does.
Not only is he uncannily similar to Orson Welles in appearance and speech. He captures his egomania, his overbearing charisma, his combination of meanness of spirit - exerting droit de seigneur over the ladies of the company and even stealing the designer's credit for himself - and larger than life generosity.
McKay, 36, dominates the cast with treacherous charm in just the way the 22-year- old Welles would have done, making them grumble behind his back but also grateful for his commanding presence and prodigious talent.
The role could easily have been a caricature, but McKay - who has also played Welles in the theatre - manages to give it extraordinary depth and vulnerability.
It's a totally convincing display of hubristic, self-absorbed genius.
The crucial scene is one in the back of a cab where Welles talks about his enthusiasm for Booth Tarkington's book The Magnficent Ambersons.
FILM buffs will know that Welles later made a film of the novel which hastened his Hollywood demise - the studio took it away from him and recut it.
But even if you don't know that, through his description of the book, you get a sense of Welles compensating for the death of his own parents when he was young and having to make his own mark on the world.
It shows us the reason for his tyrannical self-confidence but also the seeds of his self-destructiveness, a combination which was to lead to him never fulfilling the early promise of his first and finest film, Citizen Kane.
Normally in movies about the theatre, the central production comes across as hammy, but not here. This Julius Caesar is obviously a great one, influenced by film noir and reflecting the rise of fascism. But it's also a cleverly ironic device, since it's about the fall of one dictator, directed by another one.
McKay is not alone in his excellence. Joseph Tupper is splendid, albeit in a lower key, as Welles's womanising leading man Joseph Cotton.
Ben Chaplin is entertainingly insecure as the temperamental George Coulouris. The one weak point is, surprisingly, Eddie Marsan, miscast as the earnest, experienced, hard-working producer, John Houseman.
For a low-budget production, the film looks marvellous, thanks to the great British cinematographer Richard Pope, whose other credits include The Illusionist, Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy. His work here is of Oscar-winning quality.
The film isn't perfect. Nor is Efron. But he's charismatic enough to have reminded me at times of the young Johnny Depp. And he succeeds in making us feel at the end that Richard has learned a lot from his bruising experiences.
In the final scene, he and his girlfriend rhapsodise about how exciting their lives are, stretching ahead of them, and you share in their touching enthusiasm, even as the metaphorical storm clouds loom for World War II, and the mighty Orson Welles awaits both his greatest triumph and his dreadful, decades-long comeuppance.
Verdict: An unexpected delight
Four out of five stars
"BARD BOFFOLA!" was how Variety led the raves for Orson Welles's stage production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre, New York, in November 1937. The play, styled in the fedora-and-overcoat look of fascist Italy, was one of Welles's earliest triumphs (he was 22), yet in fact its legend rested on a knife-edge, as Richard Linklater's wry new film recounts. Right up to its first disastrous preview the production was in trouble, dogged by debt and unsettled by Welles's own autocratic tendencies as actor-director-impresario. People in the know were already predicting that the Mercury itself would fold by the end of the week.
Me and Orson Welles considers the chaotic run-up to that first night, as seen through the eyes of a 17-year-old high-school student who, through a combination of cheek and talent, secures a minor role in the play right opposite the Great Man. Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) happens to be loafing around the Mercury in midtown Manhattan when Orson Welles (Christian McKay) comes barrelling out of the building and, without much preamble, hires him on the spot. Whether he recognises a kindred spirit, or else just another underling he can bully, Welles adopts the kid as troupe mascot. Richard might perhaps have been more curious about the vacancy – another of Welles's random firings – but he's too enthralled by his sudden recruitment into the whirligig of theatre life, with its sophisticated vulgarities, exuberant camaraderie and promise of acclaim. What 17-year-old's head wouldn't be turned?
Richard's heart proves just as vulnerable once he's befriended by Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), secretary to Welles and a fierce bundle of ambition in her own right: she wants an audience with Hollywood mogul David O.Selznick, and isn't afraid to trample over loyalty to get it. At first you suspect that the film, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from a novel by Robert Kaplow, will turn on a struggle between integrity and self-interest – the sort of story in which the young hero must "hang on to his soul" in the face of severe temptations. It doesn't work out like that, however, mainly because Welles is presented as an irresistible force of nature: abrasive and despotic, for sure, but hugely charming and inspirational. He exasperates those around him, from his soft-spoken business partner John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to his actors and stage-hands at the Mercury, yet they all bend to his will because they all sense how extraordinary he is.
Christian McKay's performance in the title role measures up to that extraordinariness, both inhabiting Welles's magnetic, overweening personality and approximating a decent physical likeness: he hasn't quite nailed the basso profundo boom of the voice, but the princeling swagger and baby-softness of the face are spot-on. In the play Welles took for himself the role of Brutus, another leader of men with heroic aspirations. Early on we see his brilliant knack for improvisation when, having treated Richard to a recitation from a favourite novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (which he would later turn into a film), Welles turns up at a radio drama recording and, off the cuff, adapts the very same words to his part. Confident of his genius, he's a natural at inspiring others: he claims to see "images of magnificence" in Richard's acting, a blandishment slightly devalued when Richard overhears him saying exactly the same thing to a British actor (Ben Chaplin) stricken with stage fright. And, like Brutus, Welles proves no stranger to perfidy, reacting with vindictive gracelessness when Richard dares to challenge his dominion.
With so much going on in the performances, both offstage and on, it's perhaps a little disappointing that Me and Orson Welles turns out to be rather slack in its plotting. After Richard is briefly fired for crossing Welles, Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) advises him to make up with the boss and apologise for his imprudent remarks. But somehow it transpires that Welles is the one who sues for peace and comes cap in hand to Richard. You may also groan at a corny little bookending device in the story, whereby Richard has a chance encounter with an aspiring young writer (Zoe Kazan). Instead of leaving it as a wistful footnote on hopefulness, the script makes Richard an unlikely midwife to the woman's talent – he only manages to get her short story published in The New Yorker! It's strange, because at other times the film is dryly funny about the vanity of young people puffing up their own talent. When Richard delivers his single line at rehearsal and hurries off stage, he asks the cynical old prompter in the wings, "How did I do?" The prompter, his expression impassive, replies, "I cried".
In most respects Linklater has done right by his subject, rescuing Welles's coup de theatre from history's review columns and making it live again: the snatches of Julius Caesar we see performed really do convey the brooding tension and bloody violence of Shakespeare's play. And, because he is so good with actors, you stay with the film even in its flimsier passages. Zac Efron's cocksure Richard might have been annoying but for the flicker of vulnerability in his gaze; he gives his ukulele-playing a distinct twang of pathos. Canny of the producers to cast him. If his crossover appeal can draw some of the High School Musical crowd, we might even hope for a small reprise of Bard Boffola.
Four out of five stars
Creationists may flail and fulminate, but evolution will always have the last word. Look at the evidence in Me and Orson Welles . Human beings are now evolving to outwit digitisation. Forget the soothsayers who prophesied our screens would be taken over by "synthespians", many re-pixellated from old actors (digi-Brando, CGI Garbo). Christian Mackay, a new-to-screen British actor and apparent former concert pianist (the biog boffins have been busy), stalks Richard Linklater's film as the living, breathing, grandstanding reincarnation of Orson Welles.
A superpowered screen charmer, Me and Orson Welles is about a go-getting 17-year-old (Zac Efron proving he can act as well as cause hormonal meltdown) hitching a job with Welles in the bright noon of the Mercury Theatre. Four years before Citizen Kane , the self-promoting genius was revolutionising Broadway with a Julius Caesar production. Director Linklater - whose own butterfly virtuosity ( Waking Life , Before Sunrise , School of Rock ) has sometimes seemed Wellesian - venerates his idol through a script based on a barely-fictionalised novel. Author Robert Kaplow actually met the boy (though boy no longer) who played lute-strumming servant to Welles's Brutus on stage, thereby inspiring Efron's bushy-tailed pusher at the door of theatre history.
This, of course, is theatre as "theat-uh". Everyone struts about knee-deep in dry ice. The lines ring like the cracking of great frozen rocks. And Welles makes sure his repertory troupe is a permanent revolving door, flinging out dangerous rivals. "He had a personality problem with Orson," Efron is told of his predecessor. "Meaning?" "He had a personality." The boy hero, undeterred, goes into battle with the film's other boy hero. Welles was only 22 when he staged Caesar, only 26 when he made Kane.
Claire Danes, as the company's Girl Friday, is the blonde siren refereeing their love rivalry. Other faces pop up as bygone celebs (James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Ben Chaplin as George Colouris, the show's Mark Antony).
But really it is Orson's show. And when, at any point where this man has entered drama history's orbit, has it not been Orson's show? We still regard his first movie as the best ever made. We still goggle, via report, at his stage and radio feats. Here we re-meet the man himself, thanks to the magic of what we must now name "LR", Living Reincarnation, the process by which evolution has outpaced digitisation. Look at Mackay. Look at the handsome-pudgy features, listen to the rolling bass voice, appraise the twinkling eye, marvel at the offhand flourishes of the titanic frame. This is Welles. Don't let doubters spoil your fun or dent your faith in the eternal self-renewals of Darwinian theory.
IS THERE a more versatile and casually brilliant American director than Richard Linklater right now? I don't think so. Looser in style and less flashy than his fellow indie graduate Steven Soderbergh, he brings an effortlessly intelligent and humane approach to practically everything he does, from intensely personal films such as Dazed & Confused and Before Sunset, to experimental efforts such as his rotoscoped Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly. Even director-for-hire jobs such as School of Rock and Bad News Bears are approached with a warmth and grace that makes them unexpectedly pleasurable viewing.
His latest is no different. A fictionalised drama revolving around Orson Welles's legendary 1937 anti-fascist stage production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Me and Orson Welles may have the surface respectability of another prestigious backstage drama designed to enthral the luvvie set and no-one else (see Tim Robbins's Welles film Cradle Will Rock), but Linklater slyly chips away at this insular world, quietly opening it up in magical ways to reveal a hugely entertaining portrait of the maverick auteur at his bravura best.
As played by British stage actor Christian McKay (building on his highly acclaimed one-man Edinburgh Fringe show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles) he really is at his bravura best too. McKay has an uncanny ability to capture the larger-than-life essence of a man fully (and justifiably) convinced of his own artistic genius at the age of 22 without it slipping into caricature or monstrous karaoke. Which isn't to say it's an unfettered love-letter to Welles.
With the film partially focusing on Welles's attempts to establish the Mercury Theatre and convince the rest of the world of his talent, McKay frequently shows him in an unflattering light as a vainglorious bully, seldom willing to share the spotlight, yet still able to convince everyone to submit all their work to his vision.
By rights, he should be infuriating to spend time with, but Welles would never have reached the heights he did if his magnanimous personality hadn't been able to sweep others along with him – and McKay's functions in the same way. There's a great scene where Welles marches into a recording session for a radio play he's due to star in. Turning up with seconds to spare, he proceeds to go off script, improvising a much more entertaining monologue based on a story he's heard earlier that day, just because, well, he can. That he infuriates and confuses those around him hardly matters; they eventually realise he's right and, thanks to McKay, so do we.
It helps that Linklater, a born cineaste who used the Viennese setting of Before Sunset to pay playful homage to The Third Man, smartly avoids the pitfalls of the biopic genre by framing this portrait of Welles within the story of a wide-eyed dreamer. The "Me" in Me and Orson Welles is another Richard, a 17-year-old schoolboy who finagles his way into the Mercury Theatre by getting himself cast in a minor role opposite Welles's Brutus.
Playing Richard, teen heart-throb and High School Musical alumnus Zac Efron acquits himself well, taking the Johnny Depp route of aligning himself with a credibility-boosting director in a film that allows him to cede some of the limelight to a bigger personality in order to show what he can do as an actor. Blessed with natural charm and indecent good looks, Efron puts both to good use as Richard, showing a kid smart enough to know how to flatter Welles's ego and coyly allowing himself to be seduced by his new employer's ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes).
But Efron is good, too, at transforming Richard – the only fictional character in the story (it's based on a novel by Robert Kaplow) – into a three-dimensional, living, breathing person. There's only five years difference in age between Richard and Orson, but in experience terms it seems like several lifetimes, something that the casting of McKay, who is 36, and 22-year-old Efron naturally evokes.
That's not to detract from what Efron brings to the table. Playing the callow youth may still come naturally to him, but as a performer he's sensitive to the way that youthful exuberance can sometimes hit a brick wall when confronted with shrewder operators who genuinely know how to get what they want from life. (At certain points, it's hard not to view his character as a mirror of Welles, foreshadowing his spectacular fall from grace in the face of an unforgiving Hollywood studio system unwilling to see the merit in his artistic ambitions.)
Of course, it's McKay who steals the show – and rightly so. Linklater takes a laissez-faire approach to the plot, letting Welles as a character dominate the others and drive the drama forward, much like he would have in real life. But he carves out great little moments for Efron too, and makes organic use of his singing and dancing background by building in a musical number that provides a telling insight into the kind of kid Richard is: as he sings, the simple way Linklater stages the scene shows how completely it consumes him. The rest of the world seems to just drift away.
It's a nice touch. In a film that revels in the all-consuming talent of an artistic firebrand like Welles, it's Linklater's way of showing that creative satisfaction doesn't always depend on a ruthless ambition to succeed at all costs.
Orson Welles, that brilliant beast of the prewar theatre jungle, is here reduced to a gentle moggy in Richard Linklater's sentimental-romantic drama set amidst the excitement of Welles's 1937 production of Julius Caesar in New York.
Christian McKay gives a game impersonation of the young Welles, being mercurial, demanding, impossible, etc, as he mounts a challenging new modern-dress "fascist-militarist" version of Caesar – reminding isolationist Americans of the gathering storm across the Atlantic. Zac Efron is Richard, the pushy, stagestruck teen who amuses Welles and flukes his way into a small part; Claire Danes is the beautiful young theatre assistant with whom Richard falls in love, only to find the affections of this ambitious young woman are engaged elsewhere.
As so often with films reverently dealing with theatre folk, the directing itself becomes exasperatingly theatrical and inert. The focus is soft, and so are the ideas. Welles is a vowel-rolling ham who never really scares or upsets anyone – even his final crisis with young Richard isn't really painful. Tim Robbins's 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, set in very much the same time and place, also suffered from nostalgia and ancestor-worship.
There is one nice moment, when Welles improvises a new section for a radio performance of The Front Page, inserting a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons. That gave a hint of the man's cheek and his style. The rest has the taste of warm Paul Masson.
Zac Efron, the 22-year-old High School Musical heartthrob, has two performance modes: the thousand-yard stare, and the thousand-yard stare with a smile. In the backstage drama Me and Orson Welles, set in 1937, he slips between these two modes with ease.
He is Richard Samuels, an idealistic teenager who joins the actor-director and his theatrical cronies on the eve of Welles’s radical reworking of Julius Caesar. “Some day everyone in this town is going to know who I am,” he tells his mother (Janie Dee), seemingly inspired by his creative proximity to Welles, but blasting the camera nonetheless with the trademark gaze of a simple woodland creature. Elsewhere, when wooing Welles’s streetwise assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), he adopts the dead-eyed grimace of a preteen serial killer and coos: “Sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life.”
Of course, the performance, just shy of a calamity, is not Efron’s fault. The director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset) is wholly to blame for plonking a teen-movie lightweight at the heart of a dialogue- driven movie about instinctive geniuses and exceptionally talented performers, where the oft-repeated mantra is: “You really are a God-created actor!”
Unable to fulfill his dramatic remit as a spirited foil to the bullying maestro, Richard becomes at best a vaguely anonymous tour guide through the wacky world of Welles. Thus, with just one week left before the Mercury Theatre stages its politically provocative interpretation of Shakespeare (the Roman conspirators all dress as 1930s Italian Fascists), we meet a rag-tag ensemble of backstage players, all meticulously sourced from Welles lore, and all in various states of crises. These include the charismatic ladies man and nascent screen star Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), the neurotic English stage actor George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin, quietly commanding), and the cash-strapped producer, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who loudly disapproves of Welles’s carefree profligacy, just as he celebrates his indisputable powers.
And then, there is Welles himself. The Lancashire-born McKay, who bears a startling physical resemblance to the twentysomething Welles, had previously played his doppelgänger in a little seen New York play called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, and he imbues his character’s megalomania with a strain of self-doubt — Welles’s eyes are always roaming, his brain seemingly ticking over, as if calculating the outcome of every encounter, desperate to come out on top.
Yes, he has his big Wellesian moments. He screams for instance, at the assembled cast: “I am Orson Welles! And every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision! You don’t like the way I work? There’s the door!” But there are quieter, more sinister moments too, as when he grabs Richard and threatens to throttle him, hissing: “You talentless little s***!”
In the context of Efron’s performance the line has a curious resonance. But it also pinpoints the fundamental weakness of the film. Without a capable antagonist to push against, McKay’s characterisation, though almost impeccably realised, eventually becomes something of a grandstanding monologue. Similarly, the movie becomes a scattershot portrait of an intriguing bully, and calls to mind the long-forgotten fact that during the 1942 Oscar ceremony whenever Welles’s name was mentioned (Citizen Kane was nominated for nine awards) he was booed by the assembled industry kingpins — subsequently explained as resentment of Welles “wonder boy” status, but maybe they just didn’t like him? There’s not much in Me and Orson Welles to suggest otherwise.
In the end, the film fails as a character portrait, a drama or a snapshot of an era, while simultaneously offering tantalising hints of each. Apart from watching the rising star McKay strut his stuff, there’s little to recommend in Me and Orson Welles.
Set in 1937 New York (but shot on the Isle of Man) a few years before Orson Welles (Christian McKay) would make his cinema masterpiece, it's the story of a young actor called Richard (Zac Efron) who lands a small part in a Welles Broadway production and strikes up a brief friendship with the bullying, womanising but charming director.
The film both thrives and suffers on one thing - the performance of McKay as Welles. Aside from looking like the man, it's a powerhouse of a performance. When he's on screen you can't take your eyes off him.
He supercharges the scenes he's in and captures both the brilliance and ego that Welles was famous for. But when he's not on screen the film loses its spark. Efron is fine as our eyes into Welles' world but his character's journey from child to slightly more grown up man-child never interests enough to compensate for McKay's absence.
There are already murmurings of an Oscar nomination for McKay and you can see why. This wouldn't be half the movie without him. He is as good as Citizen McKay-ne (sorry).
Star rating: 3
You know how when Woody Allen does a period New York movie he can sometimes overdo the nostalgia? Richard Linklater’s ‘30s-set Me and Orson Welles is a nice corrective – still a bit romantic but also placed firmly in the real world. This imagined tale of a young actor (a very respectable Zac Efron) becoming part of an ambitious restaging of Julius Ceasar overseen by the great Orson Welles (Christian McKay) is a coming-of-age love story that slow-dances with a “let’s put on a show” behind-the-scenes theater drama. It’s a fun, smart movie about artistic aspirations, but its worthiness stems from McKay. It can be tricky to play a well-known figure who existed at a time when there were moving images of him – we all know how he sounds and looks. But beyond looking just like a young Welles, McKay nails his essence, harnessing the man’s cocky exuberance that came with the knowledge that he knew he was hot shit. These sorts of roles often get dismissed as being “just” impressions, but McKay’s performance goes deeper. You understand exactly why any young actor would go through a brick wall for Welles – he knew how to inspire and to flatter and to make you believe that you were in the company of greatness. To play Welles, you have to have a little of that greatness yourself, and McKay does. I almost feel bad for the guy: I honestly don’t know what he’ll be able to do half as compellingly after summoning Welles so completely.
The Irish Times
YOU DO half-wonder what Richard Linklater’s new film would seem like to a viewer who had never heard of Orson Welles. It’s a story about a chap who, during the later years of the Great Depression, gets inveigled into playing Lucius in a New York production of Julius Caesar .
Overjoyed to be thrust into the theatrical frontline, he gets a bit over-excited and comes to believe that the pretty theatre manager might love him. Eventually, following a series of mishaps, he allows the experience to mould him into something a little like a man.
Well, the Orson-virgin might ponder, it’s a perfectly charming piece of work. Zac Efron, star of High School Musical , proves that he has the chops to escape teeny- bopper island and forge a career as a leading man.
Despite being largely filmed in the Isle of Man, Me and Orson Welles gets across a sense of Broadway life during one of its most exciting period, and Linklater – wearing his mainstream hat – allows the story to amble along at an agreeable pace.
Our subject could, however, have one major concern: what is going on with the guy who runs the company? Puffed-up and pompous, he parades about the set as if he’s auditioning for the role of Our Lord God. Despite his propensity to bawl out the male help and ball the female staff, everybody seems preposterously tolerant of the man.
And what’s with that voice? Even when he’s ordering a cup of coffee, he feels the need to project enormously towards row ZZ of the balcony. To paraphrase Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, nobody talks like that.
We are, of course, talking about Mr Welles himself. Christian McKay, a jobbing English stage actor, delivers a note-perfect performance that manages to highlight both the arrogance and the irresistible charm of Welles at the stage in his career when everything seemed possible.
It is 1937. The Mercury Theatre Company is the most thrilling English-language troupe in the world. We are one year away from the War of the Worlds broadcast and four away from the launch of Citizen Kane . Here is Welles caught in mid-pounce, still ascending, with the prey – and the inevitable descent – some way ahead of him. If you didn’t know he existed, you simply couldn’t make him up.
Elsewhere, Linklater works less hard at locating lookalikes for the more famous personalities in his story. Eddie Marsan could not be more unlike indomitable producer John Houseman, and James Tupper has little of Joseph Cotten’s charisma. But Linklater’s casting decisions are, perhaps, canny ones. The slightly less charismatic turns by the supporting players only serve to emphasise Welles’s towering presence.
The film is an unashamed act of hero worship. The puppyish awe that Efron directs at Welles is emphasised by a camera that seems to tilt back in a swoon whenever the big man enters the room.
Inevitably, the picture cools down during the many sequences that don’t feature Welles. It would help if the story (based on a novel by Robert Kaplow) were a tad more dynamic, but large sections play out (appropriately, you might argue) like excerpts from a decent if overly talky theatre piece.
It feels odd to complain that Richard Linklater, creator of funky, loose-limbed dramas such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, seems overly tied to a somewhat hidebound script, but the director has always enjoyed frustrating expectations.
At any rate, the continuing allure of Orson Welles – and McKay’s uncanny ability to summon that quantity up – ensures that the picture is never dull. Still, if you’ve never heard of the great man, I would recommend boning up before you buy a ticket.
Three stars out of five
Having experienced people confusing the image of Orson Welles with the actuality, I was drawn like a moth to a flame by Me and Orson Welles.
Although Citizen Kane confirmed Welles's cinema career, it was the sight of him emerging from the shadows in Carol Reed's The Third Man that became iconic. The black hat, long coat and mellifluous voice all combined to create a character that has overshadowed all pretenders ever since.
Director Richard Linklater faces the problem head on. Christian McKay plays Welles by upstaging the caricature with a performance of character.
However, this is not Welles's story - it's about Me, a character in Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name and played here by teenage heart-throb Zac Efron. He's a 17-year-old called Richard who reads Noel Coward and imagines himself as resembling John Gielgud - until, in 1937, he meets Welles.
The 22-year-old genius is running the Mercury theatre just a year before he panicked the US with his radio version of HG Wells's War of the Worlds. He's struggling to stage a production of Julius Caesar and offers the lad a part since he's a "God-given actor." Welles was not always so sweet in his use of adjectives.
A dramatic duel ensues, with the aspiring apprentice and the ambitious master expanding on the lessons of life and taking liberties. Welles, clearly influenced by Meyerhold and Brecht, insists that his production has a relevance to contemporary anti-nazi politics.
But Richard soon attracts Orson's career-conscious assistant (Claire Danes) and gets slowly drawn into the intrigues of the company. It's a relationship that proves pivotal, providing a picture of an industry which stresses the sacrifices of single-minded artists.
Welles spells it out: "There's one simple rule - I own the store."
Sadly, even though the film shows John Houseman (Eddie Marsden) as house manager, it underplays his significance as collaborator. He was not merely some weaselly accountant, but employed Welles for the WPA Federal Theatre and Radio Theatre before they made Citizen Kane. Eventually, Welles was brought low by the likes of W Randolph Hearst and his quixotic ambitions.
Houseman became a victim of McCarthyism and wrote of his partnership "with a 20-year-old boy in whose talent I had unquestioning faith, but with whom I must increasingly play the combined and tricky roles of producer, censor, adviser, impresario, father, older brother and bosom friend."
What a great idea for a script.
Four out of five stars
From silent to talkies, from black-and-white to Technicolor - what's cinema's greatest watershed? For this writer, the dividing line is best represented by the not inconsiderable form of George Orson Welles. Sure, he only made one truly classic film, but a number of his movies - The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, The Trial, Chimes At Midnight, F For Fake - exist on the cusp of greatness. And even his most shambolic pictures - principally Mr Arkadin - have things to recommend them.
It's that classic film, though - you know, the one about the sledge - that makes all the difference, mind. Don't think we live in a pre and post Citizen Kane world? Then you haven't seen enough movies. No, it isn't the definitive, 'see-Rome-and-die' experience many have trumpeted it as. But with everything from The Third Man to the very best episodes of 'The Simpsons' aping Kane, it's impossible to deny its near-60 year influence. And as for movie biopics, can you think of one that hasn't to some extent been shaped by the story of the newspaper baron with the thing for statues and the appalling second wife?
Of course, Me And Orson Welles isn't a biopic - it's an adaptation of a novel about the fictional encounter between budding actor Richard Samuels (the donut-glazed Zac Efron) and the then-stage impresario Welles (essayed by the British actor Christian McKay). Naturally, Samuels sees becoming a part of Welles' Mercury Theater Company as an incredible opportunity, but it's not long before he's the butt of Orson's cruelest jokes. Still, at least the comely Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) is on hand to soothe Richard's permanently furrowed brow.
Perhaps inevitably, the relationship between these younger members of the company provides the bulk of the film's action. However, you'd have thought a director as talented as Richard Linklater might have tried to open up Robert Kaplow's novel, what with the problems of two fresh-faced actors being as nothing next to the sight of Welles and top Mercury all-stars Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) seeking to storm Broadway with an anti-fascist take on the Bard's celebrated tale.
The failure to spot the real source of drama is all the more disappointing given Christian McKay's incredible performance. Over the years a lot of actors have tried to wrangle Welles. Some, like Danny Huston (Fade To Black) and Angus Macfadyen (Cradle Will Rock), weren't really up to the task. Others such as Vincent D'Onofrio (Ed Wood) looked the part but couldn't recreate those familiar Carlsberg-endorsing tones. McKay, however, can do everything and with so little effort you can't help but wonder whether cloning's been with us since long before Dolly the sheep. Heck, he even looks uncannily like Orson, a man who could look like a slug one minute and the most handsome man alive the next.
With McKay and the other Mercury grandees doing such a good job, you can but wonder why Linklater keeps Efron front and centre. Then again, the chances are that, without the High School Musical Star, there wouldn't have been a Me And Orson Welles in the first place. And you do have to admire the little fella for trying something new. Indeed, at this stage of his career, any film in which Efron doesn't break into song and insist that any problem can be solved if we just work together has to be seen as huge improvement.
Verdict: It's slight but it more than satisfies whenever Christian McKay's Welles is to the fore.
Three out of five stars
'Me and Orson Welles', director Richard Linklater's period drama set in 1937 New York, is a bland and forgettable foray into the theatre scene of the time.
The action takes place over the course of a week leading up to the opening night of a Mercury Theatre production of 'Julius Caesar', directed by the bombastic and arrogant Orson Welles (McKay).
High school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) manages to bluff his way into the role of Lucius in the production, after a chance encounter with Welles on the street. However it's going to prove to be a steep learning curve for the idealistic young man as he experiences the highs and lows of acting life.
Richard falls for the ambitious production assistant Sonja Jones (Danes), falls in and out of Welles' favour, and comes to understand the superficiality of the world of acting.
It is a major departure for the 'High School Musical' star, who is desperate to shed his teen heart throb image and become a 'serious' actor. Zefron showed he had more than enough charm and presence in the comedy '17 Again', but here he doesn't exude any of the familiar charisma. His depiction of the aspiring actor is passable, but doesn't see him tread much unfamiliar ground.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the film is the relatively unknown McKay's portrayal of Welles. Apart from bearing an uncanny resemblance to the iconic director, McKay has mastered his mannerisms, voice and unwavering arrogance. It's a spot-on performance that holds together the slight plot - in fact the scenes without McKay often feel like filler.
This unremarkable coming-of-age tale is unlikely to confirm Efron's status as an actor who should be taken seriously. Although relatively enjoyable to watch, there's little here to impress or grab your attention. McKay should be seeing a lot more scripts building up in his office though.
Two out of five stars
Spend a week in the life of teenager Richard Samuels, cast in Orson Welles' "Julius Caesar" and competing with Welles for a career-driven production assistant.
In the new movie "Me and Orson Welles," a 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) meets theater director Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Welles gives the young actor the role of Lucius in the first Broadway production of "Julius Caesar" in 1937. The movie is about Richard’s experiences behind the scenes of the production, insight into Welles' life and his first love. Richard falls for the determined production assistant, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). A love triangle soon appears between Sonja, Richard and Welles.
This a period piece from the setting to the music. The film shines through McKay’s embodiment of Orson Welles. A fan of Welles will see the energetic and headstrong personality perfectly portrayed by McKay. Efron’s character is the perfect balance against the rough and tough Welles. I was pleasantly surprised by the acting job of Efron. I had put one against him, because of his teeny bopper following, before I even saw the film, but he really shows some talent. Danes plays an ambitious production assistant nicely as well.
The movie takes the myths of Orson Welles' life in the industry and creates a funny realism but never makes it seem over the top. Directed by Richard Linklater, also known for "Dazed and Confused" and "Fast Food Nation," seems to have fun playing with the behind the scenes antics of comedy, drama and set-up that takes play before a show. He makes the Mercury Theatre, production of "Julius Caesar" and the life of Welles through young eyes heartwarming, funny and believable.
Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name bases "Me and Orson Welles" on the historical fiction. The production and company of Orson Welles' "Julius Caesar" is based on history, but the story of Richard Samuels is fiction.
HIGH School Musical heart-throb Zac Efron finally throws off the shackles of that particular franchise and proves that he is actually a very fine young actor.
Me & Orson Welles is set in the exciting world of the New York theatre in the 1930s.
Young student Richard Samuels (Efron) gets a lucky break with a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, directed by a youthful Orson Welles (Christian McKay.)
Over the course of a magical week, Richard makes his Broadway debut, finds romance with an ambitious older woman, and experiences the dark side of genius after daring to cross the imperious, brilliant Welles.
This is a perfectly formed feel good movie and Efron acquits himself very well but the star of the show is newcomer McKay — he is truly sensational as Welles.
It opens Friday, is a 12A certificate and is definitely worth seeing.