In the High School Musical movies, Zac Efron has a Pied Piper-like effect on his classmates, who always fall behind him in perfectly choreographed song-and-dance numbers. If there’s any justice, Efron will cast the same spell over his fan base and entice teenyboppers to line up in lockstep for the effervescent new film Me and Orson Welles. Today’s Tweeting teens could use a course in the old-school pleasures of Shakespeare, live radio, and one of cinema’s most prodigious talents.
As Richard Samuels, Efron plays another high schooler with musical-theater chops, only in New York of 1937. Richard’s love of the arts and his own ambitions inspire him to read memoirs by the likes of John Gielgud and haunt music stores for the latest hit by Cole Porter. One fateful afternoon, Richard sidles up to a Broadway crowd gathered in front of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and, within minutes, secures a small part in Julius Caesar thanks to dumb luck and smart positioning.
A role in the Mercury’s Caesar, set in contemporary, Mussolini-era Italy, could make Richard’s career – assuming the theater doesn’t shut down first. The naïve young actor steps into a whirlwind of beauty-obsessed divas, disrespected comedians, dignified stagehands and the hissy fits of John Houseman (Happy-Go-Lucky’s Eddie Marsan), who tries to keep the company from becoming a shambles. None of these glittering neurotics can compete with Welles himself (Christian McKay), a national radio star whose artistic genius is only eclipsed by his tyrannical behavior. Richard finds an ally in bright, pretty assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), but also faces intimidating rivals as he tries to romance her.
Not long before seeing Me and Orson Welles, I had re-watched Welles' exceptional film essay and final completed feature, 1974's F for Fake, in which the director appears onscreen and on the soundtrack throughout the film. So as Richard Linklater's new film began, Welles' rich baritone, distinctive accent, and intense yet mischievous eyes were still lingering in my head. It came as a bit of a shock, then, when Christian McKay first appeared on screen with the exact same voice, eyes, and mannerisms as the great charlatan himself.
McKay's performance as Welles is remarkable, and reason enough to see this thoroughly entertaining film, which concentrates on the groundbreaking production of Julius Caesar that he and his fledgling Mercury Theater embarked upon in 1937. Welles was only 22 at the time, already a prodigy, but still just at the cusp of the mega-stardom that the War of the Worlds broadcast would bring a year later, and that Citizen Kane would multiply the year after that. The film shies away from mentioning just how young Welles was here, mostly because no audience would ever buy that the 36-year-old McKay is quite that young. No matter; the actor captures the soul of Welles in a way that few portrayals of real people in the movies ever have. Even for film geeks who have pored over every bit of footage of the man, McKay's performance rings flawless and true.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's a "me" in the title of this film, after all, who must be an important figure if he's sharing the title card with a giant. "Me" would be Richard, the fictional side of the film played by Zac Efron, a fresh-faced high school student who by sheer luck and good timing manages to score himself a small role in Caesar. The film, as with the Robert Kaplow novel on which it is based, is told from his perspective. His coming of age – artistically, in Welles' chaotic production, and romantically, via an affair with a theater employee played by Claire Danes – is ostensibly the backbone of the story. But Welles was never one to fade into the shadows (well, rarely, anyway), and Welles the character quickly upstages Richard's story just as surely as the dazzling McKay upstages the likable, but rather bland, Efron.
Linklater is obviously one of those aforementioned film geeks who has obsessed over Welles for years, fascinated by the odd and unlikely trajectory of a career marked by both unimaginable success and crushing failure. The director, along with screenwriters Holly and Vincent Palmo, seek to find the keys to that entire arc within just a few days in 1937. Improbably, they succeed. With McKay's help, the picture of Welles that emerges is that of a staggeringly talented artist with an equally outsized ego and sense of entitlement; a viciously opportunistic businessman with the ability to expertly manipulate those around him. Yet for all of that, the Welles on display here is also eminently likable, a restless ball of charisma that one would feel lucky to orbit for just a few moments.
And that's just what happens to Richard, thrown into that orbit briefly enough to appear in the premiere of one of the most legendary stage productions of the 1930s. Linklater takes great pains to make everything about the theatrical production within the film historically accurate, working from Welles' heavily excised adaptation of Shakespeare's play, and using the same score Welles' orchestra worked with. Richard stands in for us as the outsider here, looking at the inner workings of this production with wonder. Even just as a view into the barely controlled chaos of a theater production barreling toward opening night, the film is a fascinating look behind the curtains.
Richard doesn't really know enough to realize he should be intimidated by his director, and their clashes provide the movie with some nice personal conflict. But even though we start and end with Richard, this is a movie about Welles -- and it's unlikely that any film about the man with a larger scope or a longer timeline could ever capture his essence quite as well as Linklater has here. In fact, the movie makes a solid argument that this kind of biography, portraying a person via a defining moment in their life, may be far more effective than the formulaic birth-to-death biopics that have been in vogue this decade. Rather than telling the entire story of a life, Me and Orson Welles says much more by telling one story from that life.
John P Meyer
Me and Orson Welles is Richard Linklater's amusing, literate, high-energy cinematic ode to the days when radio ruled the airwaves and live theater fostered the talents of some who would go on to be stars of the silver screen. (Not to mention one or two who wouldn't.)
It's 1937, and upstart renaissance man-of-all-arts Orson Welles (played with the requisite egotism by dynamic newcomer Christian McKay) is preparing to open his Mercury Theater with a decidedly experimental production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
A plucky lad from the 'burbs (Zac Efron as Richard Samuels), energized by the Big Apple's bluster and blare, stumbles into a street-corner audition and is awarded the part of Lucius by dint of the fact that he can play the ukulele. (At least, he says he can play the ukulele.)
Richard has already met one swell girl in a New York museum (Zoe Kazan as the bookish Gretta Adler), and he now comes under the heady, bohemian-scented spell of another in the person of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). Sonja conducts theater business for Welles, and though she has a reputation among the troupe as a cold fish, Richard's devil-may-care confidence results in an immediate mutual attraction.
There's only a week to go before opening day -- which is still actually rather fluid, much to the chagrin of Welles' business partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who is attempting to publicize the event. Welles divides his time between finalizing the roles and the staging of his groundbreaking production, and performing his regular gig in a live radio drama. Richard accompanies him to the studio on one occasion and gets to ride along in the siren-equipped ambulance Welles has commissioned to get him through Gotham traffic and across town in record time.
"You can learn everything you need to know about radio in one hour," Welles informs his young protege, and proceeds to extemporize on the air, leaving his script-bound co-stars gape-jawed and disoriented.
Meanwhile, in the midst of ducking high school classes, coming up with excuses to feed his concerned mom, and trying to remember his lines, Richard's pursuit of the charms of Sonja Jones bears fruit when she invites him back to her apartment after a dinner date. It's in this intoxicating situation, finally, that Richard's seemingly unassailable self-confidence suffers its first misstep.
McKay makes a great and believable Welles, and while Efron's character is the focus of the narrative, it's McKay's portrayal that (fittingly) steals the show. Whether he's playing the role of fatherly patron to Richard, unleashing a tirade before the assembled crew, or acting on stage and in character as Brutus, McKay's talents command our attention -- and respect. (See whether you agree with me that he also projects a distinctly John Lithgow vibe.)
I have seldom seen a movie that so effectively portrays the opening night jitters inherent in live performance. We can feel the tension as, with 10 minutes before curtain, veteran stage actor George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) sequesters himself in his dressing room in a fit of terror. Welles digs deep into his repertoire to restore the shattered confidence of his co-star, on whose portrayal of Marc Anthony everything depends.
Buoyed along by a jazzy big band soundtrack and the frenetic energy of big egos on parade, there's not a dull minute to be found among the 114 or so that comprise Me and Orson Welles.
Break a leg! Just don't miss this movie.
Richard Linklater, America’s most underrated working director, is back, and he has brought Orson Welles with him. His latest is a comedy set in 1930s New York called Me and Orson Welles and it features the legendary filmmaker - played by Christian McKay in the film - as one its key characters. The movie focuses on Welles’ staging of his famous reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, complete with modern - for its time - setting and commentary on Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Unfortunately, the planning is a disaster for Welles, with angry stagehands all around and actors declaring their intention to quit every other minute. The theater owner (Eddie Marsan) is even unsure if they even have the funding for the whole production to go on.
All of this is a perfect recipe for Richard (Zac Efron), a high-school kid with dreams of making it big. Richard sneaks his way into Welles’ play, a cocky young man; positive he can talk himself in and out of anything. Linklater largely centers on Richard and, sadly, suffers for it. Richard is too much of a storytelling device; an entry point for the audience to witness the wild backstage life, from the sexual betting to the tiptoeing around Welles’ ego. Efron doesn’t do much to wow as Richard; a one-note, sweet boy who never does a surprising thing during the entire 114 minute running time.
On the other hand, when Linklater sets his sights on Welles, the movie is mesmerizing. While Richard is a bland, predictable soul, Welles is a zealous array of emotions, each of which bursts from his body by way of grandiose speeches or vitriolic, saliva-spewing tirades. McKay, who has been playing the notorious man for years on stage, gives one of the most enjoyable performances of 2009. He is the absolute essence of Welles, brimming with justly deserved arrogance. McKay is more than a decade older than Welles was when he put on Julius Caesar, but the vitality of his talent pushes that fact out of one’s head. The script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. - adapted from Robert Kaplow's novel - is far looser when this masterful maestro is bossing people around.
The presentation of the actual show is equally engaging. One gets a true sense of why it was so revolutionary without Linklater resorting to telling us about its importance. Dark red hues escape the floors, showering the cast with frightening shadows. In these moments, you see the creator of Slacker and Waking Life stretching his skills, which is always worth watching. Not one of Linklater’s best but a solid, if flawed, addition to his oeuvre.
As you know, Orson Welles’ movie “Citizen Kane” (1941) is my all-time favorite film, and is considered one of the best movies ever made. Participating in the classic movie were a number cast members from the Mercury Theatre actors during those early days of theatre and radio drama presentations in the 30’s and 40’s. The radio production of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” in 1938 brought national attention to the Mercury Theatre players and Orson Welles.
“Me & Orson Welles” gives us a view of the movie industry icon of Orson Welles, through the eyes of a teenager (Zac Efron) who is determined to make a go of a life in the theatre. The up and coming Orson Welles and a group of actors had a theater along with an investor who was just a bit tight with continual funding for various productions that the egotistical (some called) young Orson Welles wrote, directed, and starred in with the actors. The teen lands a role in the Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar", directed by the young Orson Welles (Christian McKay) in 1937, giving us both a public and private portrait of Orson Welles early days before “Citizen Kane” catapulted him into the national movie limelight.
“Me & Orson Welles” captures the spirit and the essence of a person who some call a genius as a storyteller. He and his Mercury Theatre Players, whether it was radio with their live dramatic presentations which includes the famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast that scared American radio listeners into actually believing Earth was being invaded by Martians, or in films as an ensemble for the classic “Citizen Kane”, what he accomplished by his mid twenties is often called genius.
My favorite quote made by Orson Welles in his later years as he reflected on his success at such an early age with the underlying thought of his best work was behind him: “I started at the top and worked my way down.” What some might have called ego, I tend to think of Welles as a realist…
Even with a soft spot in my heart for films about the community that sprouts up around creative ventures and a natural adoration for the films of both Orson Welles and Richard Linklater, Me and Orson Welles is a frustrating film, a movie that I want to love but is remarkably forgettable in spite of itself. Me and Orson Welles is a reasonably satisfying experience with some decent supporting work and one excellent performance at its core, but it's also surprisingly hollow, missing the emotional register that would allow it to carry outside of its running time. Sort of like its star Zac Efron, it's perfectly harmless and enjoyable; a film that nearly everyone will enjoy on their own terms but it's also surprisingly bland considering the larger-than-life personality that gives it half a title.
Based on Robert Kaplow's novel, Me and Orson Welles is about a now-legendary stage production of Julius Caesar directed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay). By 1937, Welles was already a little mad with his own power and ego, clearly one of the most talented directors in the world but also kind of an a-hole. To enter the circle of Mr. Welles was to do so at your own risk. All of his actors and even his legendary producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) were at the whim of Welles' mood on any given day. He worked practically without a script, cutting characters and scenes as he went along, and had little to no schedule. You better be hanging around the set when he showed up and wanted to direct and you better not question him or you'd be fired. It's amazing his ego fit into the theatre.
Our eyes and ears into this fascinating world of egomaniacal artistry is Richard Samuels (Efron), a 17-year-old kid who runs into Welles and his troupe outside the theater and is basically handed a small-but-crucial role in the production. Samuels becomes fast friends with the cutest girl not just in the theater but in conceivably all of New York in Sonja Jones (the never-more-luminous Claire Danes), aggravating the rest of the cast who has been trying to sleep with her, including the drama queen George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and smooth-talking Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). Kelly Reilly co-stars as the diva Muriel Brassler.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Me and Orson Welles. It's a pleasant diversion and McKay certainly shines as one of the title characters. He "gets" Welles in a way that a lot of people playing larger-than-life characters fail to understand. Welles wasn't just power-mad. He behaved that way because he could. He knew that he had the talent to pull it off. There's a great scene where Welles walks in at the last minute to do a radio show and he goes off-book. The glint in McKay's eyes convey a man who wasn't only at the top of his game, he knew it too. When ego and talent mix, it’s a fascinating combination in the right actor’s hands. Welles was creatively bulletproof at this point and he played with the people around him. If enough people see Me and Orson Welles, McKay could be a Best Supporting Actor candidate. He certainly deserves consideration.
No, the problem with Me and Orson Welles is in the "Me." Efron isn't a bad actor. I think he's more naturally charismatic than he often gets credit for being. But screen presence only takes you so far and Linklater gives him nothing to work with in Me and Orson Welles. When Orson arguably betrays the kid in the final act, it's not a surprise because, well, he's so forgettable that any director would dispose of him. Even his on-stage persona is dull. It's a significant flaw of the film that we never see in Richard what would keep him in Welles' circle for longer than a few minutes and the idea that he's just there for Welles to play with like a lion with a church mouse is an interesting one but not well-developed enough. McKay is great and Linklater still knows how to pace a movie as well as anyone, but Me and Orson Welles is one of his purely average films, not great and not bad, just not very memorable.
Blog: Larry Ratliffe
When I first saw Richard Linklater's blustery, entertaining "Me and Orson Welles" at the Toronto Film Festival in Sept. 2008, I emerged with two thoughts.
A: I wonder how many people realize just how daring and inventive Linklater, a Houston native based in Austin, really is as a filmmaker?
And B: If there's a God in cinematic heaven, this little gem of a show biz period piece will find a distributor.
It took a while, but Linklater's "Let's put on a show!" recreation of the founding days of New York City's fledgling, but innovative Mercury Theater in 1937 finally springs to life for anyone willing to pay the price of admission.
I generally don't like to encourage money spending in this tight economy. But if you're curious about what was going on in the mind of 22-year-old Orson Welles, or you're a Linklater ("The School of Rock," "Dazed and Confused") fan, or you love backstage comic-dramas, "Me and Orson Welles" is a must-see.
And here's another revelation. It turns out that Zac Efron, that singing/dancing phenom of "High School Musical" fame and "17 Again" shame (not his fault) can really act.
Efron plays inquisitive 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a kid who can strum a ukulele a little. Richard gawks his way down Broadway and stops at 41st to see what all the commotion is about.
Welles, portrayed magnificently as a youthful genius-in-the-making by British theater actor Christian McKay, is blustering about; shouting orders, firing people (then hiring them back) and working with his partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), to shake up the New York theater.
Welles' vision of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is billed as "Caesar: Death of a Dictator" and will feature Roman senators in Fascist military uniforms.
The best thing about "Me and Orson Welles" is how completely Linklater's production sweeps the audience into the fast-paced backstage and out-front theatrical melodrama. You'll feel like you can almost smell late 1930s New York, even though this ensemble piece was shot on the Isle of Man and in and around London, including Pinewood Studios.
If there's a drawback, it's that Linklater tries to do too much with the story. Subplots abound in this blaze of ensemble action with a coming-of-age focus. Richard, wide-eyed and innocent, falls hard for Welles' assistant, Sonja Jones, played convincingly by Claire Danes.
Sonja's an "older woman" in this scenario. The kid doesn't just learn how explosive the mind of a creative genius can be. He's also blindsided with the fact that a woman -- especially one with stars in her eyes -- doesn't always follow her heart in matters of love.
It's a shame we don't see more of McKay as Welles, though. The concert pianist-turned-actor resisted cashing in on his resemblance (uncanny, I think) to a young Welles early in his acting career. Thank goodness he came to his senses.
McKay, the axle everything turns on here, was in New York performing "Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles" when Linklater was made aware of his dead-on reincarnation of one of the most powerful spirits in film and theater history.
Three chile peppers
Blog: Mark Reviews Movies
This could probably be considered the start of it all for Orson Welles. After success on stage as an actor, he formed the Mercury Theatre, starting up the company with a 1937 performance of Julius Caesar. The success of the theatrical troupe would lead to a stint on the radio. That achievement would land him in film, and from there, the rest is legend. This was the start of Welles becoming famous for being able to do just about anything and infamous for the way he would do it.
These are not contradictions when it comes to Welles, and it's something that Me and Orson Welles understands well. He knew what he wanted to do, would do anything to get it done the way he wanted, and as long as you didn't stand in his way, you got to reap the benefits of being a part of Welles' vision. Also, you had to give up any notions that your role in the vision was anything more than a cog in his machine.
This is the hard lesson a young, aspiring actor named Richard (Zac Efron) learns after he's cast off the street for Mercury's modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's historical tragedy set in fascist Italy. Richard knows what he wants at this stage in his life as well. He wants to act, and if that means lying about being the best ukulele player Welles will ever meet, well, there's always a few days before the production's preview starts.
Christian McKay, an English actor who portrayed Welles in a one-man show in the UK and New York several years ago, plays Welles at the rambunctious age of 22. It's four years before Citizen Kane would cement him into legendary status, but McKay understands that Welles was perhaps always a legend in his own mind. If other people don't see him the same way, that's their problem.
McKay is not just a superlative imitator here (that he looks uncannily like Welles is helpful) but also a conjurer of his spirit—a sort of smooth confidence man playing a man who here finds multiple ways of conning his producer, actors, and the rest of the theater staff into doing exactly what he needs them to. They all follow him, even if they have to spend a lot of rehearsal time "Waiting for Orson" so the man can record a radio drama, woo the new dancer, actress, or receptionist, and argue with the theater's producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) about when the show will actually, finally open.
Welles knows what he wants out of himself and can perform to his own expectations while keeping an eye on how those around him can fail to meet them. While rehearsing scenes with Richard (Welles as Brutus; Richard as the faithful servant Lucius), he gives the young actor notes in between lines. After finally allowing his cast a dress rehearsal, Welles walks up to each of his actors individually, succinctly hitting the crux of what they need, need, need to fix (If she doesn't speak up, he warns his pretty, young Calpurnia, it will be the last time she appears on stage—not a threat but fact).
Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.'s script (based on Robert Kaplow's novel) understands that Welles' self-confidence (or arrogance), drive (or ambition), and need to control every little detail (or, simply, tyranny) is what made him great and never sugarcoats any bit of it. He rants and raves, tossing harsh insults, one moment, and is almost perfectly calm the next. When he has a seemingly heartfelt moment with Richard, calling the kid a "God-made actor" and a "vision of magnificence," it is only a little later that Richard oversees Welles doing the same thing to another member of the cast.
The Welles material is key, but the script also understands the world of a theatrical production, fleshing out all the backstage drama that inhabits it. Little things, like credits in a program or an actor's affair within the company, erupt into potentially show-stopping meltdowns, while big things, like the sprinklers flooding the house and an actor having a nervous breakdown just before the curtain rises, are merely a case of mandatory pre-opening bad luck. Any problem with the talent can be solved with a glass of scotch and some hollow words spoken in a heartfelt tone.
The film knows the egos, the multitasking, the jealousy, the importance but usual lack of clear communication (a bit involving Welles' symbols for music cues is hilarious ("If you want fanfare, why don't you just write 'fanfare' on the script," the exasperated band-leader asks as the audience starts to roll in). As directed by Richard Linklater, it's all captured in intimate detail, giving us a clear picture of interpersonal and professional relationships and how they force the best of those involved and can fade just as quickly as they start.
All of this is from Richard's eyes, as he comes in a naïve romantic about the theater, falls for the Mercury's intern (Claire Danes)—a girl even Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, another startling look-alike) can't get into bed—and has his moment fame. Efron is quite good at playing the kid who knows what he has to do make it, pretends well enough that he can do it, but ultimately can't stand what that means to something deeper within himself. He can't just stand by while Welles gets what he wants, depriving Richard of what he thinks he needs, and the young man really can't take it when he realizes Welles gets what he wants because others are so willing to give anything.
In Richard's tumultuous week of career placement, Me and Orson Welles captures that initial wonderment and the eventual disillusionment that comes when the business and people involved in show business turn out to be exactly what they appear on the surface: all a show.
Three and a half out of four stars
Blog: Brian Orndorf
The devious art of grand theft movie is always a delight to witness. Walking into “Me and Orson Welles,” I was expecting a benevolent coming-of-age tale, using star Zac Efron’s dewy looks and immaculate representation of adolescent earnestness to carry the film to heartening results. But then in walked actor Christian McKay, who delivers such an immaculate impression and summarization of Orson Welles, it makes the rest of the cast and the humdrum melodrama feel like they’re blocking the view.
17-year-old Richard (Zac Efron) is a teenager with big dreams. Skipping school to make a mark on the New York City theater scene in 1937, Richard comes into contact with Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his legendary Mercury Theater, about to stage a landmark production of “Julius Caesar.” Nabbing a small supporting role, Richard is allowed entrance into the world of Welles, watching the self-absorbed man work his booming personality to both encourage and humiliate his cast and crew. Finding solace in the arms of production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), Richard endures a specifically brutal education on life and love that could only originate from the toxic airspace around Orson Welles.
Director Richard Linklater should be applauded for his versatility and his gift with ensembles; while “Me and Orson Welles” only tenders a kitten-sized emotional impact by the final reel, Linklater puts on quite a show as the story moves along, evoking a crystalline portrait of Broadway during New York’s most fertile creative years. With little in the way of a budget, the production manages to capture a spirited time and place, finding the right pop tone of snappy rapport and wide-eyed wonder, as Richard receives a crash course on experience during his mere weeks of citizenship. Clearly, the theatrical focus owns the film, but Linklater finds time for a few other subplots to make their minor impressions, including a devil-may-care affair between Richard and Sonja, which reveals just how emotionally undeveloped the budding thespian truly is.
While Richard does find his footing with the disgruntled Mercury players, the rest of the picture is steamrolled by McKay’s frighteningly accurate read of Orson Welles’s bipolar hailstorm personality. The ultimate egotist, actor, womanizer, and director, Welles is the runaway Mack truck that slams into Richard, teaching the boy not only about acting, but the limits of trust in the professional realm.
From the timbre of his voice to the curl of his hair, McKay simply is Welles. It’s an astonishing facsimile of the legendary man, but the performance is not limited to simple, one-note mimicry. McKay reaches into the belly of Welles to snatch rare instances of vulnerability and, more often, cruelty, breathing fire as Welles smashes down anyone who dare challenge his authority. The camera can’t peel itself away from the performance, which is without doubt one of the most exciting of this film year. It’s worth the price of a ticket just to see Welles alive again, foaming at the mouth, prowling the stage, and dishing up virulent witticisms with Tommy Gun timing.
Richard’s arc in “Me and Orson Welles” is not one of starry-eyed hero worship, which is perhaps a more interesting idea to chew on when interpreting the growing pain clichés that devour the film in the last act. The young, trembling actor is more terrified of Welles than devoted, making their relationship agreeably complex as the screenwriting heads the opposite route, shunning more contemplative snapshots of hurried maturity. “Me and Orson Welles” struggles to encapsulate the many trials and tribulations of youth, but its heart remains on the stage, reveling in the fury of a brilliant control freak, existing in a bubble of showbiz flirtations and deceptions. With Orson Welles stomping around, who really cares about an inhibited teenager?
Blog: Brandon Fibbs
I watched most of Me and Orson Welles with my mouth agape. Not because the film is so good (it is, in fact, perfectly delightful), but because of the astonishing performance of an English actor you have never heard of. Christian McCay has only appeared in a handful of British films, but he was born to play Orson Welles. His performance is mesmerizing. It is as if Orson Welles himself rose from the grave, shed several hundred pounds and 60 years, and walked imperiously back on screen.
Me and Orson Welles is set in New York, circa 1937. Welles (McCay) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) have just formed the Mercury Theatre and have decided to stage “Julius Caesar,” set in contemporary fascist Italy, as their first production. Welles, a boy genius whose breathtaking creative intellect is matched only by his towering, colossal ego, leads a consortium of players — Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) — whose names would become synonymous with some of the greatest stage and film productions of all time. Enter Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a 17-year-old high school student who has nothing to recommend him but his ambition. Desperate to fill a small but crucial role, Welles casts Richard right off the sidewalk.
Thrust into the wildly uneven world of theatre, Richard tries to navigate learning his part and avoiding run-ins with their captivating but temperamental director. He is befriended by Sonja (Claire Danes), a production assistant, who teaches him more than just the ins and outs of the stage. As the production, flying high one moment and in shambles the next, limps toward a daunting opening night, Richard basks in a creative stew few people ever get to see. If his burgeoning career can survive crossing swords with Welles is a different matter entirely.
A couple of years ago, the sublime Canadian television series Slings and Arrows dissected the agony and ecstasy of staging Shakespeare. Director Richard Linklater captures some of that same verve here, but traps it within a historical moment, creating for the stage what the film The Player did for Hollywood. Me and Orson Welles indulges in a lot of historical name dropping, industry-speak and theatre lingo. If you are familiar with the cultural oeuvre, the film will be a more edifying experience, but it is certainly not necessary. The groundbreaking “Julius Caesar” would, of course, go on to become one of the most lauded Broadway productions of all time, a mercilessly pared-down, radically innovative play that introduced the world to one of its most luminous stars.
This is Orson Welles in the embryonic stage of his career. He is not yet being courted by Hollywood. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast is still to come. But Welles, the man and the carefully crafted persona, is already a human hurricane, a titanic narcissist, a ravenous womanizer, a gargantuan talent. Rather than pick a known actor who could do a reasonable Welles, Linklater went with an unknown commodity who could do a perfect Welles (he found McCay portraying Welles in a stage production). McCay’s Welles is as good as it gets—the famous actor’s look, baritone sound and fastidious mannerisms are spot on.
The irony is that although McCay, who is 36, looks every bit the part of Welles, he is, technically, portraying a 22-year-old young man, just five years older than Efron’s Richard. Linklater wisely sweeps this age disparity under the rug and, in truth, it does not hurt the film; indeed, had Welles been cast closer to his actual age at the time, it would have been a very different film.
An amazing thing happens when Efron, the impossibly good looking Disney teen heartthrob, is placed beside the unknown McCay. He utterly and completely vanishes. Tackling his first dramatic role, Efron appears to be consciously dialing down his rather formidable effervescence. It is a mistake. While the everyman through whom we gain access into this rarified world, Efron’s Richard, who never looks like he’s having as much fun as he should be having, is simply swallowed whole by McCay’s performance. It is, at least, historically accurate.
Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, is a whimsically good time buttressed by one of the finest performances of the year. The screenplay, oozing the sort of historical minutiae that will have Welles aficionados vibrating with excitement, also incorporates iconic elements from other Welles films (the lit cigarette in the shadowy doorway from The Third Man, for instance). Welles’ final words in the film are some of the funniest and most revealing. Looking out over an adoring, jubilant crowd giving the opening night production a three-minute standing ovation, he mutters to himself, “How the hell do I top this?” The answer would come two years later in the form of Citizen Kane, still considered the finest American film ever made. No doubt it was a question he asked of himself then too.
The story of people falling in love with art is not exactly a revolutionary narrative in cinema, but as a film student, I am a sucker for a film that tells this story well, which makes Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles that much more of an pleasant surprise. While not quite in the same league of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, it is an undeniably charming little comedy that has an equal dose of harsh reality and sweet optimism that makes the film easily relatable.
As mentioned, there is nothing particularly original about the plot. Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels, a teenager in 1937 New York who, surprisingly, is bored with school and longs to make a career as a Broadway actor. Luckily he meets the famous young Orson Welles (Christian McKay), who gives him the role of Lucius in his production of William Shakespeare’s drama Julius Caesar. As Samuels’ love for the theatre grows, so does his love for Sonja Jones (Considering she is played by Claire Danes, you can’t blame the kid), Welles’ ambitious personal assistant.
If there is one thing that I have learned from my years of watching films is that you should never doubt what an actor is able to do with the right material, which is why I will take this opportunity to risk ridicule from my guy friends (and a fair share of my lady friends.) and admit that Zac Efron gives an impressive performance in the film. As Richard Samuels, Efron finds a balance that serves him well. Samuels is not too far off from the puppy dog-eyed character he played in the High School Musical franchise, but the script also allows Efron to dig a little bit deeper, as Samuels’s struggles with the politics and business of show business. While I still have my reservations, Efron’s performance is a sign of self-awareness and maturity as an actor that makes me excited to see him grow in the future.
Despite this praise, the clear scene-stealer is Christian McKay. Despite the age and heritage difference, (McKay is a 37 year old British actor playing Orson Welles at 22) McKay embodies Welles, providing the character with the seductive charm and passion needed to make the audience understand why anyone would ever let Welles get away with his sometimes outrageous behaviour. In an overall very solid ensemble cast (Including Claire Danes as Sonja Jones, Welles’ assistant and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, Welles’ Marc Anthony), McKay is a standout and his performance demands attention come Oscar time.
Unfortunately, McKay is so good that it only pinpoints the reason that Me and Orson Welles is only a good movie instead of a possibly great one, something the young Welles would never stand for… they made him a supporting role! Its not that Richard’s story is dull, but Welles was such an exuberant, complex and larger then life character that you wish the script would dig deeper into the parallels between the two leads as they follow similar stories of artists trying to make a name for themselves. (The film takes place before the “War of The Worlds” broadcast and “Citizen Kane”) I understand that part of the appeal of Welles is the mystery behind his methods, but the script shows more of Welles as an egotistical jerk and less of Welles as one of the most brilliant and complicated figures of the last century.
However, it is hard to complain too much considering director Richard Linklater has once again created a compelling and honest look into the experiences of young dreamers. Linklater gets you caught up in the sheer magic of theatre that makes the film impossible to resist once one gets over the fear that our little sisters may actually be right about that High School Musical kid.
Final point: I have three sisters and a brother, who played that “HSM” CD non-stop for two beautiful years of my life, which I will never get back. If I can admit that Zac Efron has potential, it means something.
Blog: Elaine Macintyre
Me and Orson Welles is teen heartthrob Zac Efron's first essay into grown up acting. Hence he swaps his usual role of all-singing, all-dancing cheeky chappie teenager who plays basketball for the challenging part of an all-singing, all-dancing cheeky chappie teenager who doesn't play basketball. Way to avoid that typecasting, Zac – no wonder you turned down that Footloose remake…
If you've seen Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, you'll know what happens in Me and Orson Welles, because the stories are practically identical. A naïve young lad with stars in his eyes finds himself flukily catapulted into a glamorous adult world he's always dreamed of entering. He falls under the spell of a charismatic older mentor and falls in love with a completely unsuitable older woman, before discovering that beneath the glitz and hedonism lies a harsh, selfish ruthlessness, and that the idols he's placed high on pedestals have size twelve feet of clay.
In this case, the older mentor is not a rock star but the actor, director, writer and all round egocentric, loud-mouthed genius Orson Welles, played in an Oscar-worthy turn by unknown English actor Christian Mackay.
And herein we kinda have the problem. Because, as you'd hope Mackay's Welles is so mesmerising, magnetic and believable that he wipes everyone else off the screen, including Efron, whose story we're meant to be following. In fact, we don't much care what happens to our hero (he's young, he's handsome: he'll fall on his feet) and would much rather find out what happens to the complicated, multi-faceted, brilliant Orson (did this acclaimed legend really end up narrating Manowar songs? Oh dear).
And while Efron can carry a lightweight comedy like 17 Again with the ease of Hercules, when he's put next to proper actors, he doesn't stand up too well. Like his character, Richard, he's out of his depth, and soon discovers that charm and a pretty face can only get you so far (although a wet T-shirt moment is always a good idea…)
He's also just too darned good looking and confident to play a starstruck youth on the brink of adulthood – someone with a bit more gawky nervousness, a Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg, would have been for more convincing.
But that aside, Me and Orson Welles is still a lovely movie: warm, witty, engaging and uplifting, filled with marvellous period detail and homages to the great director's style. And of course Mackay's Welles is simply ummissable, definitely up there with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote. If you liked Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and Almost Famous, or if you're at all a fan of Orson Welles, this is certainly one to watch.
As for Zac Efron, well, maybe they'll remake Grease…
The big question everyone seems to have about this movie is: can Zac Efron act?
Umm, kind of. He's getting better. He's doing a lot of eyebrow raising here (see, e.g., the inset poster). So cute that I want to pinch his cheeks, pat him on the head, and say: "good effort." Maybe someday, with enough experience and the right acting coach, little Zackie will be able to act. But for now, he's lucky that he doesn't need to carry an entire movie. That job falls to Christian McKay the still relatively unknown actor saddled with the almost impossible duty of playing the titular auteur. So, for the sake of this review, let's forget about the "Me" and go straight to the "Orson Welles"—because really, that's the even bigger question, isn't it? How does one embody so large a character?
Well, if you're Christian McKay, the answer is very, very well. This is the kind of part that makes a performer's career, and even though the movie had its (non-Efron) faults, the concert pianist-turned-actor is now going to find himself in pretty high demand. The actor even looks the part, with the help, perhaps, of a little extra padding, and his British accent is well disguised in a near perfect imitation of Welles' recognizable baritone. (It's also a little John Lithgow-ish—and in costume McKay even looked a bit like Lithgow—but at the end of the day it was Welles we were watching.) If McKay doesn't earn himself an Oscar nomination, or at least a Golden Globe, I'd be more than a little surprised.
Of course, McKay is helped by a fantastic supporting cast full of "oh yeah! that guy!" actors, including Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan, James Tupper, and Leo Bill, all of whom contribute to the film's fantastic ensemble and support Efron adequately without overshadowing McKay. It's clear that director Richard Linklater had a lot of fun shooting these scenes, which were so enjoyable for the audience that, were it not for the film's already lengthy running time, I would have wanted more.
Less enjoyable, I'm sad to report, was Claire Danes as the "career-driven" (read: easy) Sonja Jones, whose chemistry with Efron was almost non-existent (although he's equally to blame for that) and who didn't seem to much embody the confidence demanded of her character. 3stars.jpg She wasn't bad, she was just a little flat—but Linklater's obsession with keeping her in a tight close-up almost every time she spoke didn't help with the awkwardness that seemed to overtake a few of her scenes. But nobody's really going to see Me and Orson Welles for Claire Danes, no matter what the movie's marketing campaign would have you believe. They're going to see whether somebody can pull off Orson Welles.
Somebody does. And that, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Blog: Naive Cinema
It's been a terribly lackluster week for me movie-wise since my month-old Samsung HDTV burned some fuse after a power outage in the neighborhood. After carrying the awkward, heavy thing on the subway and into a UPS to ship back to the manufacturer for repairs, I am left with nothing to watch DVDs with (as, you see, my laptop is also broken and in need of repair). My Netflix lie on the table untouched, shedding money with every day that passes. The only option I have is to watch Instant Play films on my wife's 10-inch netbook, from which I am typing, but I haven't been that desperate (yet).
So I went to the movies, in need of some large-scale moving images and all-encompassing sound. I decided to see Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, as I love Welles -- the man and the myth -- and was sure that I could soak up at least some of his spirit through Christian McKay. The movie opened with some rather nice '30s period details and a golden tint with Zac Efron in the middle of all of it, on a train and reading Shakespeare. I repressed a laugh and decided I would give Mr. Efron the full benefit of the doubt, trying my best to shed the stigma of his Disney tween associations. The scene continues as he wanders through the magic that is New York City in the '30s, taking in the awe of the bustle and skyscrapers. He sees a group of loud actors outside of the Mercury Theater and steps inside the crowd, insisting on playing a drum roll on the snare drum brought out by one of the actors. And that drum roll properly prepares the entrance for the star of the film, which is Christian McKay, donning Welles' consciously-arrogant smirk and vocal affectations.
It's McKay who carries the entire movie with charm and ability, completely nailing the Welles mannerisms -- his wit, ego, and brilliance. McKay's performance is supported by a very likable Jo Cotten (James Tupper), clownish Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and frustrated, gentlemanly John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). And if the film were up to these characters -- the actors and crew of Mercury Theater -- then this film would probably have had enough sparkle to make it a great film. Instead, we are forced to tolerate Zac Efron and Claire Danes as narrative centerpieces, as well as Zoe Kazan's pointless character, who lack the charm, lightness, and talent necessary to sustain McKay and the rest of the film.
Efron does his best, appearing earnest at times, even cracking his voice with adolescent nervousness, but he is so unconvincing and uninteresting that it completely fails to take off. Danes is a better actor, but she was completely miscast. It was hard to feel a thing between them at any point of the film. A lot of this has to do with the writing, which, aside from Welles' character, is contrived and lightweight (the ending should induce immense eye rolling). Even so, replacing Efron and Danes with more interesting or convincing actors (and getting rid of Zoe Kazan and that whole sub-plot altogether) could have made this a really good movie, instead of a vehicle for a really good Orson Welles imitation by McKay, which is what it is.
I will admit from the very beginning that I went to see this purely because I love Zac Efron. I will also admit that I thought this film was going to be some rubbish biography of some dude that I had heard of but didn’t really know much about. When I walked into the cinema auditorium, the only other people there were elderly people and I immediately thought I would find it boring. But, I was wrong.
I will safely say that Efron was cast so the film would appeal to a younger audience and also Claire Danes, most famous from Romeo + Juliet and Stardust. Efron plays Richard, a student who aspires to be an actor. One day, he stumbles across the opening of The Mercury Theatre and while everyone is outside he meets Orson Welles, who offers him a part in his production of ‘Caesar’ by Shakespeare. Naturally, Richard says yes and dives into the adult world of theatre acting. Along the way, we find out that Orson is having an affair despite the fact his wife is pregnant; he likes to always be in control and will ruin a person’s reputation for disagreeing with him. Basically, what Orson says goes. After his romance with Sonja (Danes) goes awry, Efron realises that theatre was not all it’s cracked up to be and that he does not admire Welles after all.
The plot does seem quite thin but that really all there is to do it. But, that isn’t a bad thing. The idea of the film is to focus on a period in Orson’s life -The Mercury Theatre. In fact, the actor who plays Orson, Christian McKay, is absolutely brilliant. I did not know much about the man himself before watching the film and even after research, I am still unsure if Orson Welles is the arrogant, selfish man that he is portrayed to be in the film. At least I know that the facts are correct. Most of the actors in the production of Caesar are truthful to the real ones in Welles’ time. The name of his wife and lover remain the same, as does the outcome of the show. I would say that the film sticks pretty close to the facts with maybe a bit of embellishment concerning his personality.
Although Zac Efron is usually the star, McKay definitely steals the show as the boisterous, outlandish Welles. You would probably say that Zac is only there because he can sing, dance and is good-looking. Whether that is true or not, I’m glad he was cast in this because it shows he can act in a drama rather than his standard musicals aimed at the younger audience.
Me and Orson Welles is an interesting piece. It is set in 1930’s New York and the street scenes and state of the theatre look authentic. You can learn a lot about Orson just by watching this and discover what sort of man he was. It actually inspired me to research more about him after feeling bad because I didn’t know who he was. I would say this is not a fun film or something you would see on a date but it is lovely all the same. It is nice to have a film which does not use special effects or elaborate settings and just focus on the story or subject. It is not a bad film whatsoever, I just think you have to be interested in Orson Welles or Zac Efron in order to want to watch it because it does not have a broad appeal.
Blog: Movie Moxie
People are loving Christian McKay as Orson Wells in Me and Orson Wells, his performance has already received 2 nominations: Independent Spirit Award nomination for Supporting Actor and British Independent Film Award nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. I think maybe you need to know more about him than I do to really appreciate the performance on that level, although thought his performance was strong but I never found the character that likable which I find a barrier - even if it's a 'true' portrayal.
The film did have the tenacity of 'somehow, we will make it happen!' theatre vibe which is always great to watch, but this behind the scenes theatre perspective felt not along the lines of believing in the magic of theatre but rather like seeing the con. Again, this may very well be true in this situation but it's not as easy to connect to. There was also a general aloofness especially concerning other peoples attitude towards Zac Efron's character Richard, who makes his way into the real scene of theatre on charm and guts. His performance is solid as the newcomer on the scene, learning not only more about theatre but also life in general. Iwas hoping for a bit more but will still look forward to seeing what he does in the future.
There were two actors in the film that did really knock it out of the park though. Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky, The Disappearance of Alice Creed) plays the theatre manager, the voice of reason (something you never want to hear in theatre) and he does a great job. Who really lit up the screen was Ben Chaplin (Birthday Girl, Murder by Numbers), even though he isn't in the film a lot he stole the show every time he appeared, so much so I wanted to stand up and point to screen and say "This! This is an actor!". He was fantastic.
I did find it a little strange that for a film that I'd assume is directed towards a primarily female audience has some content that wasn't in the best taste, it's subtle and wouldn't blip on a censor sheet but seemed a little out of place in the spirit of the film. Other than that I thought that it had interesting characters who are witty, charming and even endearing and you do care about them and their journey, so for that I think it's a good pick for an enjoyable drama.
Blog: Deep Dish
Zac Efron is a very pretty young man, isn't he? I kept thinking this while watching the new film, Me and Orson Welles. I just couldn't help myself--the 22-year-old actor is quite easy on the eyes. As for his performance, well, there are certainly more talented young male thespians out there. However, Efron grew on me as the movie progressed. His big screen presence wavered somewhere between charismatic and bland with the former winning out by the time the closing credits rolled. I found him believable in the role of 17-year-old Richard Samuels, who becomes acquainted with actor Orson Welles when he's cast in Welles' 1937 Broadway production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar--and it was nice to see Efron stretch himself beyond his usual High School Musical capabilities. He even gets to briefly sing, but he remains fully clothed throughout--just in case you're wondering.
As for the rest of the movie, it's wonderful. Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. adapted their witty and wise screenplay from Robert Kaplow's novel, and director Richard Linklater deserves whatever accolades might come his way (although I still consider 1993's Dazed and Confused my personal favorite of his films). At times Me and Orson Welles reminded me of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, which is about the best compliment I could ever give the film. The attention to period detail--music, costumes, etc.--is excellent. I also saw some Summer of '42 in the sweet relationship between Efron and the lovely Claire Danes, who plays Welles' efficient and ambitious production assistant Sonja. It's hard to believe that Danes, who first gained fame as a 15-year-old on TV's My So-Called Life, is now the "older woman" at age 30, but she's fabulous in Me and Orson Welles. The amusing banter between her and Efron is a delight, and the actress just lights up the screen whenever she appears. She's sort of a cross between Jennifer O'Neill and Lucille Ball, which is a pretty good combination. And I must confess that I was quite mesmerized by Sonja's bright fire engine red lipstick. Perhaps there's a tiny part of heterosexuality lingering deep within me that only appears in the presence of Ms. Danes--but then quickly vanishes whenever Mr. Efron bats his long pretty eyelashes.
In addition to Efron and Danes, the other main star is a relatively unknown British actor by the name of Christian McKay, who truly inhabits the heart and soul of Orson Welles in his amazing performance. Having once performed a one-man show about Welles in a 50-seat New York theatre, McKay couldn't be better in the role. I would love to see him nominated for an Oscar--even though this is probably doubtful for such a small film. It's too bad because McKay is outstanding.
I also enjoyed the supporting performances of Kelly Reilly (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as actress Muriel Brassler, who would rather kill herself than appear in a production of The Women since she prefers to work with men; James Tupper (Anne Heche's boyfriend and former Men in Trees co-star) as actor and ladies' man Joseph Cotten, whose "quadruple spacing" scene is a highlight of the film; Ben Chaplin (whom I haven't seen much of since 1996's The Truth About Cats & Dogs) as actor George Colouris; and Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) as writer Gretta Adler, who befriends Richard.
Much of Me and Orson Welles takes place inside Welles' Mercury Theatre during the rehearsals and opening night of Julius Caesar, and Linklater does an impressive job of recreating the acclaimed production. Although I would've liked another scene between Richard and Welles at the end, I highly recommend this enjoyable backstage comedy-drama. As for Mr. Efron, who knows how his career will evolve. Alec Baldwin was once a pretty 22-year-old actor starring on a daytime soap opera (The Doctors)--and now look where he is. Perhaps if Efron continues to select more serious movie roles, he just might be hosting the Oscars in 2040. Until then, we'll simply enjoy the pleasant eye candy that he provides.
Blog: Fandango Groovers
Me and Orson Welles is full of surprises: I have never seen a Zac Efron film and only know him by reputation, on the evidence of this film he is a good young actor. Christian McKay IS Orson Welles, he manages to combine a perfect impersonation with a strong acting performance. Director Richard Linklater takes a rare trip out of Texas to make a film unlike anything else he has done before. The last of these points shouldn’t really be a surprise, although common threads run through his films, the films thenselves are still vastly different and always a rewarding experience for the viewer.
Taking place over the week leading up to the opening of Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Mercury Theatre told from the point of view of Richard (Zac Efron) the theatres newest recruit. Concentrating on Richards experiences as he interacts with Welles and the other actors. There is great support from Ben Chaplin and James Tupper as George Couloris and Joseph Cotton respectively (in real life both characters went on to work with Welles in future including on Citizen Kane). The film also follows Richards relationship with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) that becomes integral to the plot. As all this is going on we get to see the development of the production, this is one of the films greatest achievements. I walked out of the cinema and said “I would have loved to see that production”.
There is a standout scene where Welles is recording a radio show, he ignores the script and adlibs to the chagrin of the other performers, the astonishment of Richard and the amusement of the films audience. We also see Welles’ famous womanising and glimpses of his love of magic tricks. Brilliantly executed the film works as both as a look backstage and a coming of age drama, but more than that fans of cinema get to see the geniuses, the ego and even the cruelty of one of cinemas most enigmatic auteurs. It is also often very funny.