NOBODY personifies the volatile combination of genius and hubris better than Orson Welles, which is probably why the late actor, director and international bon vivant continues to provide such intriguing film fodder.
We’ve had dramatizations of his misadventure producing a realistic radio version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America, a re-creation of the making of his masterpiece Citizen Kane in the cable movie RKO 281 and a portrayal of his pre-Hollywood days in New York, directing the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project, in the film Cradle Will Rock.
Only one film has bothered to tackle his post-Kane dissolution, the Serbian-shot Fade to Black, about his actor-for-hire days in Hollywood B pictures. Perhaps filmmakers don’t want to be seen tearing their idol down, although comedian John Candy had a field day lampooning Welles when he was picking up cheques by narrating documentaries and doing wine commercials.
The Welles director Richard Linklater gives us in Orson Welles & Me is still at the peak of his creative stage powers, about to launch his Mercury Theatre’s first production in 1937, a modern-dress Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy. Our entry into this world is through the eyes of teenage acting hopeful Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who strides up to the 41st Street theatre and lands the role of the minstral Lucius with his claims of ukulele prowess and a stirring rendition of a Wheaties jingle.
Welles appreciates Samuels’ spunk — he pulled a similar trick himself in his teens at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, claiming to be a Broadway star — but we soon see he hates spunk, at least when it doesn’t respect the pecking order.
There are oblique references to Welles eventual fall from grace, but for the most part, he can do no wrong and gets away with everything, buoyed by his confidence in his own genius. British actor Christian McKay has a field day with the part, living up to his uncanny physical resemblance with the kind of energy we imagine Welles must have possessed, juggling multiple projects and dashing around New York in an ambulance to save time as he supplemented his theatre with radio work.
We spend most of our time with Samuels, however, and we get that he’s cocky and confident because, well, he’s played by teen heartthrob Efron. We don’t get that he’s awkward with girls, pained by a fling with Welles’ assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes as "an older woman"). The High School Musical star has an effortless charm on screen, but his pain and frustration at the way he’s treated don’t register as sharply as they should.
There’s still plenty to keep us invested in Me & Orson Welles, especially the opportunity to experience what was previously an ephemeral event never recorded on film, with Halifax actor James Tupper comfortably playing Welles’ collaborator Joseph Cotton as a seasoned ladies’ man and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, a trained actor losing his wits in the midst of his director’s whirlwind approach.
For a similar showbiz-set coming-of-age period piece, one that fires on all cylinders, I recommend 1982’s My Favourite Year, with Mark Linn-Baker getting a few life lessons from his idol, a washed-up swashbuckler played impeccably by Peter O’Toole.
Set in 1937, Zac Efron stars as Richard - a high school kid who dreams of acting professionally. In a classic entertainment biz twist of good fortune, Richard finds himself passing by the Mercury Theater as Orson Welles (Christian McKay) is going on one of his frequent tirades and bursts of genius.
The kid impresses Welles with some impromptu drumming and his natural ability to suck up to the boss with some well placed praise, which scores him a small role in Welles's production of Julius Caesar (Some things never change in the entertainment or business world when it comes to sucking up). Along the way, he falls for production assistant Sonja Jones ( Claire Danes), and learns about the hard knocks of life.
Will Richard win Sonja's heart?
Can he learn his lines?
Will the production actually open on time, or at all?
Me and Orson Welles is one of those classic stories about the challenges and pitfalls of putting on a show made ever greater by a bigger than life egomaniac genius you can't take your eyes off of. McKay gives one of those performances you have to see to believe, and one that will make you want to see Me and Orson Welles again and again.
He delivers an amazing caricature of Welles complete with the bombast, insatiable appetite for life, intoxicating charm to win over any foe, and sense that he is almost always the smartest man in the room, even if he is the most stubborn and intractable. It is a show stopping performance. If you have ever seen an interview with Welles, or any of his movies, you will recognize him in McKay, and start counting down to when you will see the actor sitting in the audience as a nominee on Oscar night.
Then, Efron shows he can keep up, which is quite a feat when you consider how amazing McKay turns out to be. It's fun to watch Efron as Richard trying to mimic Welles, and doing so without as much ability, but a knowing awkwardness when needed, and real charm at other times. In Me and Orson Welles, Efron doesn't play the teen heart throb. He shows he is so much more.
Director Richard Linklater does a wonderful job delivering a quick pace, classic comedy and enough reality to bring everyone down to earth. Plus, along with writers Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr. (based on the book by Robert Kaplow), he keeps us in suspense as to how the production will turn out, if they ever make it to opening night.
In a way, you almost hope the movie never ends.
Zac Efron may bring in the High School Musical crowd. Maybe Claire Danes too. But an actor none of us have ever heard about is the star here, playing a towering cultural figure from the now distant past. Christian McKay simply captures the bluster, the arrogance, the self-possessed confidence of the young Orson Welles. Before he terrified America with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and astounded Hollywood with Citizen Kane, Welles directed some ground-breaking stage productions in New York. This film centers on the play that made his name, his famous modern-dress Julius Caesar. Zac plays a high school student who accidentally enters his world, gets a small part in the play and is cautioned to never criticize him.
And he doesn't, for the longest time. He's taken in by the energizing glow of a genius. There's a particularly lively sequence when Welles acts in a radio play and turns a small part into an inspired improvisation. Zac romances his assistant (Claire Danes), gets a close up education in creating theatre and comes to an inevitable confrontation with Welles. This lively film dabbles in eccentric, even scandalous, behavior and puts to shame the anemic vision of Welles in a recent HBO movie.
4 out of 5
The title of Richard Linklater’s film Me And Orson Welles is both grammatically iffy and a case of misplaced priorities.
Orson Welles takes second billing to no one.
And he certainly doesn’t place second to Zac Efron.
Me And Orson Welles is a movie that is very much like the 1982 Peter O’Toole classic My Favourite Year, in that it is about a naif coming comically face-to-face with a one-man theatrical force-of-nature.
If you remember that movie, do you recall who played the kid? Exactly. (It was Mark Linn-Baker, by the way). All anybody remembers is O’Toole.
In the same way, one comes away from Me And Orson Welles with one thing burned indelibly into the brain, the tour-de-force performance of a British actor named Christian McKay as the young Welles — by turns arrogant, flip, blazingly and extemporaneously talented, seductive, vindictive and magnetic.
This is not to dismiss Efron, the High School Musical heartthrob who obviously yearns to be taken seriously.
He is solid enough in this sepia-tone-drenched tale of a talented ’30s high school kid who BS’s his way into a small role in Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar — a cutting-edge work for the time that contemporized the Bard with almost fascist overtones.
It would be the production that would effectively “make” Welles’ career. And his relentless determination to knock the socks off the opening-night critics gives him free rein to lie, cajole, flatter and threaten.
Against this backdrop, Efron’s character Richard (who is cast as Lucius in the play), learns myriad lessons about the life and superstitions of theatre people, and even gains the mercurial favour of the Great Man himself. Soon, he becomes a veritable company mascot, amid a cast of characters that includes a nebbish writer, a stagefright-stricken Marc Antony (Ben Chaplin) and real-life actors-playing-actors like John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper).
Though everything Wellesian is about the “passion” of theatre, Richard discovers that his real-life teenage passion is a poor mix with the cold-blooded version peddled by the Maestro.
The catalyst for this collision is Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ do-everything secretary, who develops an older-woman crush on the kid (to the chagrin of every male in the production who’d been trying to put the “make” on her). Her free-spirited fling with Richard is returned by feelings of true adolescent fire — a love-of-my-life obsession that soon clashes with the job at hand, to perform the miracle that is a successful Broadway play.
As mentioned, Efron does a creditable job carrying this part of the dramatic load, and he delivers the glib dialogue with smart-alecky verve.
But the movie is only really alive when McKay’s Welles arrives in any scene, like a storm blowing through the room. It’s a tall order to recreate the magnetism that Welles commanded in his youth (and later squandered), and it’s an object reminder that there are actors and there are movie stars.
The fact is, Me And Orson Welles probably wouldn’t have been made without the participation of a movie star named Zac Efron. But it would never have come to life but for a relatively unknown actor named Christian McKay.
Three and a half out of five stars
Never has a "me" seemed more superfluous in a title than it does in Me and Orson Welles, a Richard Linklater movie that creates stardom by accident.
The "me" refers to Zac Efron, who is looking to break out of his High School Musical box with a more dramatic role. He doesn't succeed, but the other half of the title and the entire movie belongs to Christian McKay, an unknown Briton who renders unto Welles what the showbiz giant truly deserves.
Steady critical acclaim for McKay's wry take on Welles accounts for why this small picture is opening now, having languished on the shelf since its premiere at TIFF '08. McKay powers his way into being a credible candidate for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the next Academy Awards.
The movie's initial emphasis is on Efron, who has only youth in his favour in the role of Richard Samuels, a teen aspirant to the Broadway stage. It's November 1937, and Richard is on a train heading into Manhattan, staring at a photo of John Gielgud and imagining himself in the shoes of the great actor.
He soon finds himself in front of the Mercury Theatre, where Welles, a wunderkind at 22 thanks to his mounting of an audacious black version of Macbeth, is planning another cultural coup. He wants to set the Bard's Julius Caesar in the fascist Italy of World War II.
Welles takes an immediate shine to Richard, who joins the Mercury troupe as a combination gofer, bit actor (he'll play Lucius) and Welles protégé.
But the easily distracted Welles spends more time chasing skirts and arguing with producers than giving direction, leaving Richard ample time to chat up the director's assistant Sonja (Claire Danes).
Richard doesn't really know what he wants to do with a woman, and Sonja isn't all that interested in a lad about 10 years her junior. This is no impediment to sex, but romance might be another matter. Danes adroitly manages to make her character's flexible morality seem more liberated than loose. Efron just seems adrift.
Working with the fact-based eponymous novel by Robert Kaplow, first-time screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo are content to follow the contours of a standard behind-the-scenes story about the staging of a play.
The same can be said of director Linklater, who normally goes in for edgier material. He's content here just to reproduce the look and sound of a bygone era and to present one memorable character.
Linklater's instincts are shrewd and spot-on in the casting of McKay, who is not only a ringer for Welles, but also a fabulous interpreter of his baritone bossiness.
The actor elevates the so-so script with mirthful depiction of Welles as a man of such outrageous narcissism, he orders his staff to summon ambulances to convey him through New York because taxis aren't fast enough. On the rare occasion when Welles says "thank you" to a member of his beleaguered troupe, he has to whisper it because the sound might hurt his ears.
The ambulance story sounds apocryphal. But given that the events of the film occur less than a year before Welles terrified America with his War of the Worlds radio hoax, and four years before he revolutionized cinema with Citizen Kane, you can believe anything about the man.
Two and a half out of four stars
Winnipeg Free Press
Smitten critics who maintain that Orson Welles' film Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time routinely point to the film's technical brilliance and its sophisticated, revolutionary approach to narrative.
Curiously, one of the overlooked components of the film is Welles himself. He had perhaps the most beautiful voice of any screen actor, with the mellifluous quality of an English stage actor coupled with the snappy rhythm of the Yankee upstart he was. The moments when he's onscreen buzz with mild but pleasing electricity. It's possible that cineastes taken with his achievement may have been partly seduced by the man himself.
Director Richard Linklater seems to understand this going into this comedy-drama, set in 1937 when Welles was staging his own version of Julius Caesar for the Broadway stage, employing the costumes and atmosphere of Mussolini's Italy. Welles, well played by English actor Christian McKay, is irresistibly magnetic. At the age of 25, unshakably confident in his talent and vision, Welles exercises his formidable charm to help mount the production, even as he spreads himself thin doing radio plays, attending social events and indulging in extra-marital affairs.
Swept into this world is 17-year-old student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a would-be actor who happens to be in the right place at the right time when he stumbles upon a group of actors outside a Broadway theatre who are waiting for Welles to appear.
Cast on the spot to perform a song and read a few lines in the play, Richard is soon enmeshed in the eccentric workings of the production. Along the way, he falls for Sonya Jones (Claire Danes), a producer's assistant whose Hollywood dreams hinge around a meeting Welles has promised to arrange with producer David O. Selznick.
At this point in history, Welles could be viewed as merely a casting-couch cad, but Linklater, ably abetted by McKay, portrays him as something closer to a charismatic preacher at the altar of theatre, so thoroughly convinced of his own genius that he's all but blind to his own hubris (although one could surmise Welles was sufficiently self-aware that he cast himself as Brutus instead of Marc Antony).
If Me and Orson Welles has a weakness, it's the "me" side of the equation. Zac Efron is admirably attempting to break free of the High School Musical pigeonhole, but he still maintains the smooth, shiny surface of the Disney hero, where this role requires a certain toughness and grit he simply doesn't possess.
I first saw Citizen Kane when I was ten. Back then, it was hard for me to reconcile the image of the passionate, young Orson Welles as he acted and directed his way through arguably the greatest American film with the older, overweight Welles I was more familiar with (I think I’d seen him in The Muppet Movie).
Search “Orson Welles” on YouTube and the first video that pops up is an outtake of Orson drunkenly ruining a Champagne commercial. It’s hard to visualize the point in his career when he was the toast of the theatrical community and was considered a full-fledged genius. Not surprisingly, unpredictable director Richard Linklater took an interest in the figure of Welles. Although Me and Orson Welles isn’t a great film, it does authentically satisfy certain curiosities.
In 1937, teenager Richard Samuels (Zac Efron from High School Musical) lands a job at the Mercury Theatre in New York, appearing briefly in Orson Welles’s soon-to-be groundbreaking production of Julius Caesar. Richard quickly becomes infatuated with Sonja (Clare Danes), an ambitious girl who works for Welles (Christian McKay). As the play nears its debut, Richard is spurned by Sonja and risks offending Welles’s volatile personality.
As a story about a young man nearing adulthood it story falls flat. Efron plays the part capably but without any real charm, which would help detract from the superficiality of the character. Richard works only as a device to pull the audience into the world of Orson Welles, wonderfully recreated by McKay. At times, he truly channels Welles, offering the audience both his charm and egomania.
The film also largely serves as a faithful recreation of Welles’s Caesar, as produced on the New York stage. A few photos are the only surviving record of the historic play and Linklater meticulously duplicates its bizarre lighting and modern costumes, giving us an idea of what the actual play must have been like.
On its own, the film doesn’t have much to say, but for anyone with an appreciation or curiosity for Welles, it’s a pleasure.
"Me and Orson Welles" isn't quite a coming-of-age movie, and it's not quite an examination of the early, pre-cinema work of Orson Welles. Instead, it's an odd melange of the two that is intermittently entertaining but never quite comes together in a satisfying way.
Teen heartthrob Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels, a high school student with dreams of stardom in the footlights of a New York City theater. Skipping school one day to try his luck in the Big Apple, Richard falls in with the Mercury Theatre troupe, which is planning a big production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
The Mercury Theatre, of course, was headed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the wunderkind of the prewar American entertainment scene. Already a star of radio and theater, Welles was still four years away from the premiere of his most famous, most lasting work: "Citizen Kane."
Taking a shine to Richard after the boy outrageously boasts he can play the ukulele, Welles gives him a small part in the play and takes the young man under his wing. While at the theater, Richard runs into the bright lights of early cinema, including John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper).
He also runs into love, in the person of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a fair-haired beauty who ignores the more famous cast members in favor of Richard. The young man is infatuated with the lovely young lass, but she seems to have her own agenda.
The standout performance here comes from Mr. McKay, whose hammy Welles is incredibly true to life: He jumps off the screen as no one else in the film quite does. It helps, of course, that he's playing such a larger-than-life figure.
Mr. Efron, meanwhile, doesn't stray too far from the archetype that has served him so well in "High School Musical" and "17 Again." He's likable and cute and doesn't botch the few moments of emotional heavy lifting the paltry script throws his way. Miss Danes manages to be convincing as a world-weary temptress despite her eternally youthful looks.
There's an interesting — possibly even great — film to be made about Orson Welles' early work, as biographies by David Thomson ("Rosebud") and Simon Callow ("The Road to Xanadu") have revealed. It might even be a good idea to frame the movie as director Richard Linklater has, through the eyes of an outsider who catches glimpses of the auteur's petty jealousies and undeniable brilliance.
Unfortunately, "Me and Orson Welles" isn't that film. Something fails to click into place: Both the love story and the story of the production of "Julius Caesar" feel a little rushed — and neither feels entirely believable.
Washington City Paper
A larger-than-life figure is also relegated to the sidelines in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, an adaptation of a fact-based novel that tells the story of a teenage actor who bluffs his way onto Broadway. Here, though, Welles’ part is more well-rounded and satisfyingly meaty than Mandela’s, and newcomer Christian McKay embodies the famed director so seamlessly it’s enough to recommend this otherwise inoffensively lackluster film.
McKay’s performance has been rightfully stealing the thunder from the movie’s main ballyhoo, which is the High School Musical–groomed Zac Efron’s first foray into drama. Efron plays Richard, a New Jersey 17-year-old with aspirations of becoming an actor. When he’s walking around Manhattan one day, the cast and crew of Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar spills out onto the sidewalk, and Richard inadvertently schmoozes his way into a bit part as Lucius. A bit wide-eyed—and just naive enough to ignore the repercussions of challenging the blustery Orson—Richard spends the next week getting a crash-course in acting, ass-kissing, and, of course, love, the latter with the troupe’s older and more worldly secretary, Sonja (Claire Danes).
Me and Orson Welles, the debut script of husband-and-wife team Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., was actually in the can last year, and the delayed release allowed audiences their first taste of a post-HSM Efron in the comedy 17 Again. (His supporting part in 2007’s Hairspray, another musical, hardly counts.) This film suggests that the young hottie is better suited to song and dance: Efron’s Richard is bland and personality-free, and not even his looks are enough to sell the character. In an early scene, Richard describes himself as “sort of an actor”; by the end of the film, one can’t disagree.
Little else in the story, which focuses on the cast’s rehearsal, is all that compelling, either, no matter how its ’30s New York glows or how much cheery ragtime plays. But there is McKay: Uncanny resemblance aside, he’s a delightful force as Welles, delivering a convincing portrayal of a man completely self-absorbed who could yell at and insult his crew but still be adored. (A great line: “I am Orson Welles! And every single person standing in this theater is an adjunct to my vision!”) But what is so evident in this character is lacking in the film overall—in a word, “possibilities.” Even though the story is seen through the perspective of a fledgling, you never sense the thrill of that first foot in the door. And so Me and Orson Welles effectively drops the first part of its title, and in turn the whole point of its existence.
Richard Linklater’s new comedy isn’t a biography of Orson Welles. Based on Robert Kaplow’s bestselling novel, it portrays the late, great director at 22 years old, brimming with confidence and a furious desire to take Broadway by storm. It captures his larger-than-life spirit, the hubris of an artist reaching the height of his creative powers and fully aware of it.
The film is set in 1937, a week prior to the opening of Welles’ innovative reimagining of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with the Mercury players. Richard (Zac Efron) is a fresh-faced rube, hired by Welles on a whim and thrust into the role of Lucius, which requires a strong set of pipes, a familiarity with the ukulele and the moxie to act opposite the director himself, playing Brutus.
Richard fibs his way into the part — his ukulele skills are rudimentary at best — but Welles (Christian McKay) is too preoccupied with rewriting the Bard to care. He is a perfectionist — a micromanager in the truest sense — who slaps down all challenges to the resident genius. As Welles tells his actors, he owns the house, and anyone foolish enough to cross him will be shown the door.
Is Welles a tyrant? To the extent that he bullies his cast, creating as much drama off stage as on, he is. Yet he knows when to build his actors up, massaging their egos just enough to keep his production from coming unglued. In all his underlings he sees “images of magnificence,” or so he tells them. He’s not out to make friends, but even his most strident critics can appreciate his devotion to his craft. He aspires to greatness, and demands nothing less from the help.
Me and Orson Welles is transcendent when Welles commands the stage as he did in 1937, four years before directing his first feature film, Citizen Kane. He is the stellar attraction in Kaplow’s coming-of-age story, which traces young Richard’s hot-and-cold romance with the theater.
McKay, who previously starred in a one-man stage show as Welles both in his prime and in his declining years, is a revelation here, with a performance both fearless and mesmerizing. This is a man who has done his homework. He captures the director’s mannerisms, including his incomparable rumbling baritone, with uncanny precision. But to describe McKay as a master impersonator would be an injustice. He is channeling a prodigious spirit here, and his work should put him in the first rank of Oscar contenders.
That’s not to marginalize Efron, the High School Musical star saddled with a character hopelessly lost in Welles’ shadow. Richard is, in effect, our blank-slate narrator, a witness to the occupational hazards facing every actor, whether a veteran like Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, perfectly cast) or a 17-year-old neophyte from New Jersey. After his relationship with Welles takes a bittersweet turn, Richard contemplates leaving the stage for good, but no matter — he is young, handsome and hungry, with a future full of promise.
The same can be said for Welles, who would establish his legend on the big screen with Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Yet in his uncompromising approach to his work — the audacity that earned him so many accolades — we see the very qualities that eventually made him an albatross.
Welles, whom Linklater has called “the patron saint of indie filmmakers,” would be defeated, if not humbled, by Hollywood studios that quickly tired of his expensive movies and meager box-office returns. (Before his death in 1985, he concluded a storied but ultimately shipwrecked career as the voice of Unicron, a planet-eating robot, in Transformers: The Movie.) Me and Orson Welles affectionately recalls his glory days, when Caesar was the toast of Broadway and the director’s creative fire burned unabated. If the Richards of the world happened to get singed, well, that was show business.
Before reality shows, people had to get famous the old-fashioned way: They needed actual talent. Me & Orson Welles offers nostalgia for those days (specifically, a week in November 1937 when Welles’ revolutionary staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opened) — especially for those who toil in the arts and stay in it because they (we) are crazy.
In this coming-of-age story, Zac Efron shows he can have a career as a leading man after he graduates from high school. Efron plays Richard Samuels, who is sure he wants to be a musician … or an actor, or a composer, or a writer. He ventures into Manhattan and stumbles upon Welles (Christian McKay, doing a marvelous impersonation) outside the Mercury Theater, where Caesar is soon to open.
Learning that Richard can play a ukulele, Welles hires him to replace a recently-fired actor as Lucius, servant to Welles’ Brutus. Richard may even lose his virginity, if he succeeds where the other men in the company have failed with Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ ambitious young assistant who has advanced networking skills.
So begins a week in which the 17-year-old will learn life lessons and theater lessons and make his Broadway debut. You’ll learn too, about quadruple space and the bad luck thing — and probably about Welles, too.
Welles, only 22 at the time, has a temperament that puts the “mercurial” in the Mercury Theater. He knows he’s a genius and assumes certain privileges go with that status: Cheating on his wife, bullying everyone who works for him, showing up at the last minute for a network radio broadcast and ad-libbing a soliloquy.
Famous for taking liberties with Shakespeare, Welles trims the play to 90 minutes and even cuts half the title. Besides being writer, director and star, he’s a dictator, teacher, psychologist and wet nurse. However he abuses them, some of the company will work with him four years later on Citizen Kane, including producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and actors Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin).
Other figures of the day are name-checked as well, from recently deceased George Gershwin to John Gielgud, David O. Selznick, Les Tremayne, Brooks Atkinson and Harold Ross. Without being too cute, allusions to Welles’ future works The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight are worked in.
Director Richard Linklater scatters in period details convincingly without making an epic. Not being a Wellesian director, Linklater makes it look like all he had to do was pick the right cast and the right screenplay (by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from Robert Kaplow’s novel), then get out of the way. The truth is never that simple. The script might have benefited from a little of Welles’ editing but you won’t be in a hurry for it to end.
It will be a shame if this small gem gets lost among the year-end blockbusters. Fans of something as old as the theater, as new as Glee or as enduring as Welles will love it if they get a chance to see it.
Three and a half out of five stars
In “Me and Orson Welles,” director Richard Linklater and a brilliant cast accomplish the rare coup of creating a thoroughly credible and deeply entertaining biopic about a titanically famous film personality.
That icon would be the titular Orson Welles, although one of the clever tricks of the script (based on Robert Kaplow’s slim novel) is that the Welles in question isn’t the creator of “Citizen Kane” or any of his bloated or floundering later incarnations but the young, sexy, vital Welles who revolutionized Broadway and galvanized radio drama in the late 1930s.
Welles is played in a truly magnificent performance by English actor Christian McKay, who has the jaw line, the voice, and, yes, the cheek to play the oversexed, insanely gifted writer-director-actor who made headlines with his interpretations of Shakespeare while a stripling of merely twentysomething years. Roaring, womanizing, bragging, scheming, daring fate: McKay gives vivid life to everything Welles does. He’s utterly superb.
The “Me” of the title is Richard Samuels, an aspiring actor played with believable naiveté and moxie by Zac Ephron. Richard falls in with Welles’ Mercury Theater for a production of “Julius Caesar” and thereby learns the ways of women (Claire Danes, Zoe Kazan), of actors (Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan), and, indeed, of fame and glory and other cutthroat businesses.
Linklater relies on an old-fashioned story and a gallery of fine performances, choosing modest directorial ambitions that suit the material like a second skin. It’s a cannily humble tack -- especially given the directorial ego that is his subject -- and it makes for a lovely little film.
Sometimes one performance can save an entire film. Take Me And Orson Welles, a fairly bland coming age story set against the backdrop of Orson Welles’ infamous 1937 production of Julius Caesar.
The movie is featherweight and predictable, but bursts to life every time Christian McKay appears on screen as Orson Welles.
McKay’s performance transcends impersonation to completely capture the complex personality of a young Welles at the peak of his powers and director Richard Linklater (Waking Life) is clever enough to shade in all of Welles’ flaws just as carefully as his prestigious talents. It’s easily the best representation of Welles ever captured on screen, but unfortunately the film that surrounds the towering performance doesn’t quite compare.
The main problem with the movie is that it centres on Teen Beat coverboy Zac Efron rather than Welles.
The High School: The Musical star plays an ambitious teen who stumbles into a small role in Caesar. Much of the film is about Efron learning hard life lessons from Welles, the cast, and a promiscuous production assistant played by Claire Danes.
Efron’s limited range as an actor is stretched to the breaking point in a pretty undemanding role. The script does capture the youthful joy of being involved with the arts reasonably well, but without Orson Welles this would have been a made-for-TV movie at best.
Fortunately Richard Linklater rushes through the plot to spend as much time as possible with McKay’s Welles, vividly recreating his expressionistic take on Julius Caesar and filling every scene with subtle details about Welles’ early life (such as his use of off-duty ambulances to race around New York).
It’s unfortunate that the director didn’t just make a film about this era of Welles’ life with Christian McKay as the star, because it could have been an interesting bio-pic. As it stands, Me And Orson Welles is merely a pleasant movie featuring one astounding performance destined for awards recognition.
What a swell concept: A movie about a time in history when movies weren’t primarily about movies. Instead, it’s about a play, and Welles’ time in the acting trenches of radio and theatre. Welles is pretty much known for three things: scaring the hell out of Americans with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, directing and starring in Citizen Kane (1941) and a couple other black-and-white masterpieces, and dying in 1985, having not directed a film in decades and looking exactly like he did in his Citizen Kane old-man makeup (his final film role was the voice of robot planet Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie).
Me and Orson Welles predates all of these claims to greatness. It’s 1937 and Welles and his fledging Mercury Theatre Company are mounting their debut production: Shakespeare’s high tragedy, Julius Caesar, with the setting changed to then-contemporary Fascist Italy. The swinging jazz and art deco opening credits announce that this is indeed a period piece, and director Richard Linklater and his art department army hit every antique target dead centre, from the sets, costumes, hairstyles and lighting right down to the colour saturation and ubiquitous smoking.
Twenty-two-year-old tween heartthrob Zac Efron is Richard Samuels, the high school student who in typical Hollywood “right-place, right-time” fashion lands a small part in the production. Welles, brilliantly embodied by British actor Christian McKay, plays Brutus and directs the Mercury with an iron fist. McKay nails all of Welles’s charm, hubris and tempestuous genius, not to mention his physical appearance and compelling, commanding voice — this guy can project! Claire Danes is effervescent and entrancing as Sonja Jones, the Mercury’s Girl Friday (and Welles’s occasional Girl Friday-night). The supporting cast, including Ben Chaplin and James Tupper portraying real dead actors, is generally very strong.
The biggest issue with this film is its star: Efron is never completely credible as the titular “Me.” His professed love of art and theatre comes across as entirely insincere and his performance is consistently lacking in depth and substance. Surrounded by so many high-wattage personalities and talented actors, Efron is a washout.
The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England, where 1930s New York is recreated in all its Technicolor glory. The serviceable script (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) is kind of corny, telegraphing its plot points well in advance. But Claire Danes does look gosh-darn sexy in ’30s dress, hairstyle and makeup, and Me and Orson Welles is an equally pleasant and pretty, if not particularly profound, period piece. It’s neither comedy nor tragedy, more like light drama, and if all that seems like damning the film with faint praise, well, it probably is.
Three and a half stars
Southern Exposure Magazine
Shot in 2008 and left dead in the water for a year before finding distribution, Richard Linklater’s 1930s period drama stars Zac Efron (High School Musical) as an aspiring young actor who lands a role in Orson Welles’ stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There is a Capra-esque quality to the proceedings, as Welles’ Mercury Players attempt to pull the play together in time for its premiere. Efron is surprisingly effective as the wide-eyed Richard, who both idolizes and fears Welles, and Claire Danes (one of the most underused women in Hollywood) is charming as Welles’ assistant Sonja, who finds Richard’s naiveté endearing. But the real star of the show is Christian McKay, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Welles is uncanny. It will be a shame if he doesn’t get the Oscar nomination he deserves come January.
"Me & Orson Welles" is a delightful film about life in the theatre. It stars Zac Efron as a teenager who ends up working for the legendary actor and director in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar in 1937.
Christian McKay is Oscar-caliber as the tumultuous Welles, and Clair Danes is just right as Welles' eager assistant.
If you have ever been in a play, you'll understand the eccentricity of what happens in this charming, funny film.
"Me & Orson Welles" is directed with a sense of perfect timing by Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater. His look at life backstage is one of his better films, and the casting of McKay as Welles is inspired.
As a fan of the theatre (and of film), I loved every minute of this charming little cinematic jewel.
Richard Linklater’s latest takes us on a tour of Orson Welles’s 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as seen through the eyes of a high-school senior (Zac Efron) who lucks into the role of Lucius.
Christian McKay is a hoot as the blustering, monomaniacal Welles, though one suspects his performance was inspired less by the actual Welles than by Maurice LaMarche’s magnificent impression of same. But he’s really the only reason to bother with this otherwise forgettable movie, which coasts on borrowed charm and doesn’t really do anything with the vast potential of Welles’s legendary career.
The larger problem is that the movie insists on building most of its drama around Efron’s starry-eyed proto-stalker, relegating Welles to offstage tantrums. Next to McKay, Efron looks like even more of a lightweight than usual; worse, the shiny young actor strikes zero sparks with bobble-headed love interest Claire Danes.
The flatness of the production, with British soundstages unconvincingly passing for 1930s Manhattan, makes the film seem even more of a trifle.
Two out of five
Orson Welles, the one-man band behind Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and other cinematic landmarks, began his career with monumental achievements on both stage and radio. Richard Linklater's new, lighthearted backstage drama is steeped in that era of Welles' life - New York City circa 1937 - and centres on the hectic week leading up to the mounting of a radically modern theatrical presentation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Though his infamous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was still forthcoming, Welles, then director and actor with the Mercury Theatre company, was already a formidable presence to behold. A trifle overweight with a booming voice that never lost its timbre, Welles could - and does in Linklater's adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel - intimidate those around him merely by having the most sizable talent in the room.
As embodied by Christian McKay, (who makes his screen debut here after performing the role in a non-affiliated one-man show), Welles' contrasting petulant and remarkably considerate sides are given equal indulgence. The film suggests the world couldn't operate at Welles' level or speed, so his ego would sometimes get the better of him. Also hinted at is the idea that to cross Welles was the worst offense of all, and the brunt of his wrath could be felt in perverse ways.
Enter Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a keen youth who gains unprecedented access to the Mercury Theatre's day-to-day affairs after conniving his way into the production by masquerading as a much-needed lute player.
Given a bit part in the play by the impressed Welles, Richard receives a crash-course not only in theatre, but in the machinations of the world and romance.
When he falls for the theatre's adorable (and over-qualified) secretary, Sonja (Claire Danes), Richard gains advice on how to handle his intended affair through interacting with the colourful cast of actors: George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), a swaggering Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and a gawky Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill).
Lording over the imminent opening of Julius Caesar, reprimanding Welles when need be, is business partner John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
A subplot involving an aspiring short-story writer (Zoe Kazan) doesn't add much in the way of narrative, but it gives the film a bonus poetic dimension and depicts Richard's humble existence away from the heady backstage life.
At certain times in Me and Orson Welles, Linklater seems to be commenting on his own place in film history, questioning what it means to be working in an art form so preoccupied with earlier directors' accomplishments.
While it is in awe of this past master, the film also seeks to explore Welles' legacy.
Zac Efron has been a boy wonder, first as kid performer and then as hunk star in the “High School Musical” series. At 22 he seems a touch mature to be the eager schoolboy Richard, who in 1937 cute-talks his way into the tiny role of Lucius in the Mercury Theater’s Broadway “Julius Caesar.” The challenge, charmingly met by Efron, is that he must please the supreme wonder lad, Mr. Precocity himself: Orson Welles.
“Me and Orson Welles” director Richard Linklater must have choked with joy on finding English actor Christian McKay. Welles certainly looked beyond 22 at 22, so even at 35 (during filming) McKay is a gift of the gods to this movie. Not quite so tall or as vocally supple, he is still the Big O in many ways: verbal pounces, moon-faced Svengali charm, sardonic lift of the eyebrow, tantrums, endearments, blazing ego, greed for food and work and women, and fixation upon details (as in, “Did you tune the uke?”).
Above all, McKay generates the almost unmatchable excitement that made gifted people ready, even eager, to eat some dirt for his gold. Before he made “Citizen Kane” (1941), Welles was already a burning legend of theater, radio and self-promotion. Previous Welles depicters (like Vincent D’Onofrio in “Ed Wood,” Liev Schreiber in “RKO 281″) are left behind by McKay like the chewed stubs of Orson’s cigars.
Holly Gent Palmo adapted a delightful short novel by Robert Kaplow, and Linklater spurs it along with the vitality of his past best (”Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “School of Rock”). The 1930s touches are deft, from Fiorello La Guardia stickers to swing tunes. Richard, a sharp dreamer, slips enjoyably into the company that would soon make stage history. Ben Chaplin nails the fretful moods of actor George Coulouris, James Tupper is rakishly Joe Cotton, Claire Danes is the secretary who is blissfully on the make, and Leo Bill amuses as Norman Lloyd, tormented by Orson about his big death scene.
Looming imperiously is the master toying with disaster (Welles barely rehearsed as Brutus). The film often has the sparky buoyancy of early newspaper scenes in “Citizen Kane” (directly quoted), and it smartly condenses the play’s production, so richly evaluated in Simon Callow’s first book on Welles. The ending seems not quite commercial, but then, Welles was never very much about commerce. Linklater contours the legend lovably, McKay is unforgettable and all’s Welles that serves Orson like this. This movie is a great splurge of fun.
The last thing that a movie about Orson Welles should be is innocuous, and yet Richard Linklater’s period comedy — set in the run-up to the Mercury Theater’s legendary modern-dress production of Julius Caesar — is only superficially pleasing.
Still, there’s something to be said for surface pleasures: Christian McKay’s performance as the ascendant Welles is one of the great recent screen impersonations. He’s seductive and malevolent, a sacred monster, and he dominates everything in the film — including Zac Efron, competent but a shade too self-effacing as Richard Samuels, a newbie thespian drawn like a moth to the firebrand actor/director and to the theatre’s seen-it-all secretary, played by Claire Danes.
This sorcerer’s-apprentice premise is neat, and it’s also pretty familiar. (A friend remarked that Me and Orson Welles’ plot is essentially a rehash of the “I Didn’t Do it Boy” episode of The Simpsons, with Efron’s striver as Bart and Welles as Krusty; while that’s a bit glib, it’s essentially true.) For all of its precise visual and historical details, the film deals in generalities: showbiz is a harsh mistress; genius is a double-edged sword; illusions are made to be shattered. As a primer on the pre–Citizen Kane Welles, it has its value, but for a truly affecting, substantive meditation on artistic ego performance, you’ll have to rent The School of Rock.
Three out of five stars
The seeds of an icon’s greatness, and of his demise, are on display in Me and Orson Welles, a superb entertainment that carries much cultural history just beneath its lighthearted surface. Above all, the movie sports a career-making performance from Christian McKay, who effortlessly embodies the 22-year-old Welles on the eve of his own major breakthrough.
The Me of the title is fictional Richard Samuels, a high-school drama student—played well by 17-again Zac Efron—who drifts into the Great Man’s orbit when the latter is about to launch his modern-dress version of Julius Caesar. This being 1937, modern means fascist, and Welles’s Mercury Theatre is part of a leftward upswing in American arts, although this isn’t highlighted here and may not have been that important to key players like impish Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), surly George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill, the cast’s weakest link).
Also aboard are sad-faced Eddie Marsan as producer John Houseman and glammed-up Claire Danes as an ambitious administrator to whom young Richard is drawn after he’s literally plucked off the street to play a musical page to Welles’s brooding Brutus. The boy learns plenty of lessons, some not so nice, from his new hero.
Using a screenplay that Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. crafted from Robert Kaplow’s novel, director Richard Linklater rather unexpectedly shot the whole thing on soundstages in England. The theatrical re-creations are brilliant, and even more delightful is a long sequence of the inner workings of live radio and Welles’s nimble, self-serving mind. A subplot with Zoe Kazan as a young writer who also engages Efron’s callow character may be less substantial. But everything here works to build an indelible portrait of a man, and another time and place.
My man Orson … Perhaps it has something to do with Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ first-ever feature film starring and directed by himself; he also co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay with Herman Mankiewicz. This was in 1941. It is now known to most as the “greatest American drama ever produced.” He was never able to top that first project, and died trying. Well, not exactly. I have always held a warm place in my heart for Mr. Welles, and am invariably intrigued by anything Wellesian. So, this latest movie, Me and Orson Welles, concerning a young Welles plotting his famous take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the stage in 1937, was right up my alley. Based on actual theatrical history, it tells the story of an even younger stage actor, Richard, played in the film by a terrific Zac Efron, who lands a small role in the play and what happens to him and his co-stars because of the director and his antics. Christian McKay is perfect as the young Welles and has every nuance of his persona down to a science. Claire Danes plays a secretary/receptionist to Welles and a girlfriend of Richard’s. She is marvelous, as is the rest of the troupe; especially James Tupper, who portrays a young Joseph Cotton. All in all, Me and Orson Welles gets a ‘9’ from me and will soon hold its proper place on my list of ‘favorite films.’
Gatehouse News Service
Disney boy toy Zac Efron gets top billing in “Me and Orson Welles,” but the guy you can’t stop watching is the slightly less tabloid-friendly Christian McKay.
How good is he as the bigger-than-life Orson Welles? Well, let’s just say his name will never again appear below Zac Efron’s. He may even garner an Oscar nomination, just as a newcomer named Welles did in 1941 for “Citizen Kane.”
Make no mistake, though, “Me and Orson Welles” is no “Citizen Kane.” Heck, it’s not even on a par with “Citizen Ruth,” yet director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise”) has fashioned a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Welles in the infancy of the genius that would yield timeless masterpieces like “Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Touch of Evil” and “Macbeth.”
McKay goes far beyond mere impersonation to take you inside the mind of a 22-year-old wunderkind as he mounts a stage production of “Julius Caesar” that will redefine Broadway in 1937.
It will also mark the debut of the now famous Mercury Theater, a company of actors, writers and stagehands fearless in their quest to go far beyond the status quo. It was the brainchild of Welles and his 35-year-old partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), two adversaries who, like Lennon and McCartney, found a way to get along because they knew they were better together than they were apart.
Watching McKay and Marsan take you back to their characters’ heyday is not only thrilling, it also erases all those terrible visions of Welles and Houseman as TV pitchmen in their later years. But even then, they were influential. Who else could make catch phrases like “They earn it” and “We will serve no wine before its time” live on decades after they were first uttered?
We also spy a young Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) emerging from the shadows – literally – in homage to Welles stepping out of the dark during their famous confrontation in “The Third Man.” And, isn’t that George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), the fidgety guy who played the smarmy money-grubbing guardian Thatcher in “Kane”?
“Me and Orson Welles” is loaded with similar nods to what was to come, although having Welles tote a copy of Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons” everywhere he goes is a bit much.
Still, film buffs will nod and smile. Or at least they will whenever Efron isn’t onscreen gumming up the works with his gossamer portrayal of the “Me” of the title. His name is Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old street musician whom Welles invites into the company to play the lute (really a ukulele) beside him when, as Brutus, he summons the will to slay Caesar.
The kid is real, although his name has been changed, but his back story and romantic machinations involving Welles’ Girl Friday (and any other nights he summons her to his bed) are purely fictional.
Perhaps that’s why Richard’s pangs of first love feel so false and contrived. Not to mention cliché. But you cannot deny that Efron and Claire Danes as the elusive Sonja Jones, a secretary-come-starlet sleeping her way to the top, make a handsome couple. People just don’t get better looking than this. Nor more boring.
Whenever they share the spotlight, filling the screen with unbridled vacuousness, the movie stumbles like a drunk at closing time. It eventually reaches the point where you resent them for depriving McKay of the additional face time he deserves.
Why Linklater and screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo opted to go for the coming-of-age angle instead of focusing solely on Welles is perplexing, especially when they had a gold mine like McKay right under their noses.
Still, there’s enough of him to make the movie worth a peek, especially if you’re a Welles fan. Those are the people who will most appreciate how accurately McKay apes Welles’ imposing physical presence, as well as his deep, authoritative voice and arrogant, but playful demeanor. He’s not just playing Welles, he IS Welles. And the movie, despite its numerous romantic missteps, thrives on it.
Three out of four stars
If you’ve heard anything about “Me and Orson Welles,” it’s probably that actor Christian Mckay is sensational as Orson Welles. And while Mckay lives up to the hype and his performance is worth the price of a ticket alone, you may be surprised to hear that Zac Efron isn’t half bad as the “Me.”
Efron equates himself nicely in Richard Linklater’s charming period piece and takes his first confident steps away from “High School Musical” (He smokes! He drinks! He seduces an older woman!). Efron has a nice aw-shucks kind of charm, which contrasts well with the brooding and deathly-serious take on tween-idoldom that Robert Pattinson is currently employing in the “Twilight” series.
Efron plays Richard Samuels, a confident, cocky high school student in 1930’s New York who cons his way into a pre-“Citizen Kane” Orson Welles production of the now famous version of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater. At the rehearsal leading up to the big opening night that will either break or make Welles, Richard falls for Sonja (Claire Danes), who helps run The Mercury, and learns a little bit about life’s little realities in the process (mainly, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is).
While Efron anchors the film, Christian Mckay steals the show. Mckay, in a turn that is part performance and part impersonation, completely captures Welles’ precocious brilliance (he was only 22 when he directed “Julius Caesar”) and overwhelming ego that threatened to end his career before it truly started.
The script wisely does not try to explain or forgive Welles’ bad behavior. It becomes painfully clear that there is rarely a moment when Welles isn’t playing whatever part that will assure that the show will go on and yet everyone keeps falling for it. The guy is just too damn charming. From the little moments of encouragement, to the brilliant bits of off-the-cuff direction that he seems to casually pull out of thin air, Mckay completely captures the manic brilliance of Welles while never forgetting to acknowledge that the guy was kind of a jerk as well.
In the end “Me and Orson Welles” does not make excuses for Welles’ bad behavior. If anything, the film suggests that how he treats Richard is nothing new. You get the feeling Welles has burned a lot of bridges in the name of making great art.
“Me and Orson Welles” is full of characters that constantly talk about how they would give almost anything to create art that will stand the test of time. Welles is simply more mercenary and cold-blooded about it. It is the quality that probably made him brilliant, and very lonely.
Three and a half out of four stars
In Denver Times
Forget the “me” in the movie Me and Orson Welles: It’s Welles who steals the show.
If you’ve seen Orson Welles in a movie — and who in their right movie mind hasn’t? — you’d have to wonder whether any actor successfully could play the genius director of Citizen Kane and founder of the vaunted Mercury Theater. Before seeing Me and Orson Welles, I’d have bet against any actor who had the nerve to take a sustained run at a figure as out-sized as Welles.
As it turns out, I would have lost my bet. British actor Christian McKay nails Welles. McKay not only looks enough like Welles to keep his appearance from becoming a distraction, he sounds like Welles and fills out Welles’ personality, which was enormous even before the boy genius of the 1940s, expanded his girth.
The “me” of the movie’s title is a high school student (Zac Efron of High School Musical fame) who aspires to be an actor. Efron’s Richard Samuels manages to audition for Welles, who’s beginning to rehearse his version of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater, a 1937 modern-dress production of Shakespeare that many viewed as groundbreaking.
Richard lands a small part in Julius Caesar, and watches as Welles indulges his libidinous appetites while pushing his actors toward a stellar achievement. The bit of Julius Caesar we see near the movie’s conclusion might be better than anything in the rest of the film, which also doubles as a coming-of-age story for Efron’s Richard. While hanging around Welles’ troupe, Richard falls for Sonja Jones, a wily and worldly production assistant played with easy sophistication by Claire Danes.
Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Me and Orson Welles seems intent on teaching Richard a life lesson. It’s impossible for even a brash young man of talent to pit himself against a titanic personality such as Welles, who’s portrayed as a gifted actor, a genius director and a philandering cad.
Those familiar with the Mercury Theater will recognize some of the supporting characters, which include John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). Marsan’s frequently exasperated Houseman may be the standout here. He tried to keep a grip on the purse strings while Welles pretty much ignored every constraint.
It’s incredible to realize that Welles was only 22 when he brought his Julius Caesar to New York. He was still four years away from making Citizen Kane, and already more full of himself than any man deserves to be. But Welles’ egotism was matched by his talent. Watching Welles rehearse his actors while offering asides on Shakespeare is worth the price of admission.
Director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock and Waking Life) makes the most of the carefully appointed sets, as well as of the enthusiastic bustle of the theater. But it’s McKay’s Welles that dominates the generally enjoyable proceedings; McCay’s performance can be seen as a brilliant incarnation of a well-known and imposing figure. Like Welles himself, McKay practically dares us to look away.