Sometimes you just watch a movie and wonder why no one has ever made a movie like it before. The subject of director Richard Linklater's latest gem is the move that the newly birthed Mercury Theater (led by rising radio star Orson Welles) made to bring Shakespeare--specifically "Julius Caesar"--to Broadway in 1937. The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old would-be actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who gutsily approaches the Mercury players while they are congregated outside the theater waiting for their marquee to get turned on. Welles (played with uncanny accuracy by British actor Christian McKay) is impressed with the young man's hubris and hires him to play the small role of Lucius opposite Welles' Brutus.
ME AND ORSON WELLES feels like it's not only attempting to capture the period it's set in, but it's also trying to capture the feel of films made in the time period. The rapid-fire dialogue, the classic elements of a backstage drama, and the slightly overplayed performances all perfectly blend into an energetic production whose pure entertainment value cannot be denied, if for no other reason that McKay's performance as Welles is terrifyingly on the money. I forgot in about two minutes that I was watching a movie with someone in it playing Welles; McKay simply becomes Welles, as both a boisterous dictator of a director and a philandering, sensitive soul with an endless arsenal of exactly the right words to get out of or into any situation. He's also an indisputable genius when it comes to directing, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, which (much like his film versions) he boils down to their absolute emotional essentials. The Mercury's 1937 production of "Julius Caesar" had the Romans in modern-day fascist wear and featured terrible examples of mob rule and political assassination. And Welles knew exactly how to make the play seem ultra-modern as well as timeless.
Even if the rest of the film was terrible, it would still be worth seeing for McKay's work. But fortunately, the rest of ME AND ORSON WELLES is quite good. Transitioning teen idol Efron brings the right balance of enthusiasm and innocence to Richard, who falls in love with office manager Sonja (Claire Danes), who seems like a great catch until we slowly realize she's a slave to her ambition to turn this thankless job into something more prominent. Sonja might be the most complex character in the film, and Danes holds back just enough in her portrayal to keep us wondering what Sonja will do next and with whom. Also doing fine work is Ben Chaplin as actor George Coulouris (Welles' Mark Antony), one of the few professionally trained actors in the production, and one of the most anxious. Zoe Kazan, who had such a great supporting part in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, plays Gretta, a young woman Efron meets in a record store, and keeps running into at just the right moments in his life and hers. Eddie Marsan plays John Houseman, who runs the day-to-day operations of the theater and ends up doing most of the apologizing on Welles' behalf. I was charmed by James Tupper's role as actor Joseph Cotten (Publius), who befriends Richard as much to guide him through the minefield that is Welles' personality as anything.
Sure the love story between Richard and Sonja is cute and interesting, but really all I cared about is watching Welles pull his show together in an impossible timeframe. He rips apart scenes that don't work, he cuts superfluous words with hardly a second thought, and he fires or threatens to fire actors who disagree with him. As he puts it, "It's my store." One begins to believe Welles thought that about the entire world--or at least those who were brave/foolish enough to step in his line of sight while he's working. ME AND ORSON WELLES is a coming-of-age story about both Richard and about the Mercury Theater players, who went own to help Welles make CITIZEN KANE four years later. Welles was a man of mischief--as can be seen by a sequence in which he does a guest spot on a radio play and ends up improvising dialogue from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons, which Welles went on to direct a film version of after KANE--and he was a man who knew how to instill strength and confidence in others even if he had to use deceit to make that happen. This is the kind of film that is easy to get lost watching. From the sharp script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (from the Robert Kaplow novel) to the rich directing by Linklater and the performances that never stop giving, ME AND ORSON WELLES is a great combination of fiction and history that is difficult to forget and so easy to love.
Austin’s Richard Linklater is one of the world’s finest, most flexible filmmakers.
A Texan capable of generational statement Slackers, mainstream comedy School of Rock, love notes Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the inspired art-house animation Waking Life and the documentary Fast Food Nation is a natural for the reimagining of a pivotal theatre production in Me and Orson Welles.
The year is 1937, the city is New York. As Nazi thunderclouds rumble across Europe, the brilliant 22-year-old American artist Orson Welles decides to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a fascist critique. Linklater’s intensely entertaining comic piece is a making-of Caesar in the Mercury Theatre, with subplots.
British newcomer Christian McKay gets everything but the unnaturally sonorous voice as Welles, the “competitive, self-centred, brilliant” boy genius at the beginning of his mercurial career as boss of the Mercury troupe.
“I own the store,” he proclaims, and means it. Though he himself is a broad target for criticism – he stashes a pregnant wife out of town so he can chase skirt at will – he will brook none of it from his players. A dictator like the one his play attacks, Welles gets by on charisma, wit and outsize talent.
He needs all of it with the predictable cast of needy, egotistical, insecure actors under his care. Thank God he’s got Claire Danes’s sweet, ambitious production assistant to pour oil on the troubled waters of this risky production in the seven days leading up to opening night.
And Richard Kaplow, a street-smart high school student who talks his way into a role and neatly describes the film. “This is the story of one week in my life. I was 17. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles’s pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. it was the week I fell out of love.”
There is terrific chemistry between Welles and the cocky younger man he calls “Kid” or “Junior,” as if seeing something of his own hunger in him. It wasn’t till the second reel that the penny dropped. Richard is played to the hilt by Disney teen dream Zac Efron. Who knew?
The film was largely shot in the Isle of Man, because that’s where the lovingly restored Gaiety Theatre is located. (The original Mercury is long gone.) The excellent acting – by Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly and others – feels exactly like an ensemble prepping for epochal triumph, or disaster.
Costumes, swinging score and a sharp, witty script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from the novel by Kaplow all contribute to the best film about theatre in years. It’s a Richard Linklater film, after all.
Four out of five
"When I look in your eyes, I see images of magnificence." Gripping his distraught actor in a firm vise minutes before opening night, Orson Welles (Christian McKay) exudes towering inspiration. The theater maestro and future cinematic hall-of-famer was only 22 when he helmed the Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," by many accounts the most groundbreaking stage feat of its day. The magic of Welles' virtuosity--and of theater itself--saturates every minute of director Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," a breezy love letter to the creative process whose charm proves irresistible.
Opening on gaudy shades of New York City in 1937, the film explores Welles' achievement through the eyes of fictional Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a 17-year-old high school student with theatrical aspirations. Briskly walking along 41st Street after a serendipitous encounter with aspiring writer Gretta (Zoe Kazan), Richard saunters into an even more fortuitous boon: He lands the minor part of Lucius in Welles' upcoming stage adaptation of "Julius Caesar." In a matter of minutes, we are immersed into a world that brims with creative energy, filled with characters mourning Gershwin, worshiping Shakespeare and reciting Keats in front of Grecian urns.
Bombastic, arrogant, domineering, imperious and utterly brilliant, Welles cuts an imposing figure among his peers. He demands nothing but perfection from every member of his troupe, unleashing his dictatorial fury on them if they fail to meet his lofty standards. "You're not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit," cautions Welles' assistant Sonja (Claire Danes). The truth of the matter does little to bridle Richard's enthusiasm, as he develops rich friendships with several cast members and attempts to court the older Sonja to mixed results.
As envisioned by Linklater, theater life takes on a joyous dimension of its own. Cinematographer Dick Pope ("Secrets & Lies," "Vera Drake") captures both the bustling exteriors and lively interiors of 1930s New York, the period atmosphere heightened by the saccharine sounds of Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington. Eye-opening technical feats abound: cleverly staged long takes at a radio rehearsal and late-night dinner party, culminating in Linklater's recreation of Welles' historical opening night in all its stark glory.
While McKay's barnstorming embodiment of Welles is undoubtedly the film's enduring highlight, Efron's merits an honorable mention. Blessed with charismatic old-school appeal, the "High School Musical" heartthrob conjures visions of a young Tyrone Power or Alain Delon in his first serious film role. His performance as the callow yet headstrong Richard isn't the most remarkable role on the bill, but it serves as a wellspring for the film's allure. "Me and Orson Welles," after all, is first and foremost a coming-of-age story, and Efron's innocent virtue successfully complements the seasoned ambition of his co-stars.
In a year teeming with Depression-era dramas of varying ambitions and agendas--Mira Nair's dreary "Amelia" and Michael Mann's exhilarating "Public Enemies" among the more notable entries--Linklater's film wisely and wittily sidesteps the period's drabness in favor of its endless promise. There is scarcely any trace of gloom or wartime anxiety in the film, and it's all the more fitting in context: This Orson Welles, high on the thunderous success of the opening night of "Julius Caesar," can hardly imagine topping himself.
No matter. "Me and Orson Welles" successfully breathes life into a lost moment in history, and its status as a labor of love is never more evident than in the film's final sequence. As Richard reunites with Gretta, fresh off the most memorable week of his life, a bird's-eye shot reveals New York in all its luminous allure. In Linklater's universe, autumn feels eternal.
There are three things to learn watching "Me and Orson Welles." Zac Efron can act (I kid you not here). British thespian Christian McKay is Hollywood's discovery of 2009. And a movie about the "theat-uh" can be more than a snore.
Set during one week in 1937, director Richard Linklater zeroes in on a 22-year-old Orson Welles as he rehearses his ground-breaking New York production of "Julius Caesar."
The chaos. The drama. Welles' bombastic charms. His romantic dalliances. You can almost smell the greasepaint in the air in Linklater's exhilarating ode to Welles' youthful heyday.
"People think they know Welles from "War of the Worlds," "Citizen Kane" and beyond. But, his early time in New York were his real glory days," Linklater, 49, told CTV.ca.
"Everything Orson touched back then turned to gold. Theatre. Radio. He launched his Mercury Theatre. He was a showman firing on all cylinders. Nothing ever matched that time again," says Linklater, ("Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock")
Adding to this story's pandemonium is the brash arrival of teenaged thespian Richard Samuels (Zac Efron).
Desperate to break into the theatre, Richard blunders into a meeting with genius Welles and wins a small role in the play.
Suddenly Richard is sucked up into a world of glamour, over-the-top egos and artistic treachery.
"I am Orson Welles!" McKay thunders at Richard and everyone else who dares to breathe the same air that he does.
Welles humiliates his company members. He coddles them. He zings them with poisoned arrows then lets them sob on his shoulder.
Every inch along the way McKay embodies Welles right down to his booming voice and sly, ego-slaying smile.
"Finding Christian was just meant to be," says the Houston, Texas-born Linklater.
Just when Linklater thought no actor could fill Welles' shoes, he found McKay at London's Royal Shakespeare Company.
"Christian was a dead ringer for Welles," says Linklater. "There are so few actors on the planet who could have pulled this role off. Christian did it in spades."
"Me and Orson Welles" is, first to last, McKay's show. Yet, Effron gives a surprisingly sturdy performance as the youthful wannabe wounded by his art and the artifice of one ambitious theatre assistant (Claire Danes).
"Zac brought a lot of his own past to this role," says Linklater. "He told me it reminded him of all the seat-of-your-pants theatre productions he had ever done."
Linklater also says the "High School Musical" star is a better actor than critics believe.
"Zac wasn't just this kid coming from California who didn't fit in here. He held is own against everyone else on the set,' says Linklater.
As for the Welles' superhuman career, Linklater says, "Nothing about Welles ever ceases to amaze me. It is astonishing that he accomplished so much at such a young age. The more I learned about him on this film, the greater my respect for Welles grew."
Examiner San Francisco
Bursting with life, energy, passion and love, the sensational "Me And Orson Welles" is one of the year's great and most entertaining triumphs. The eclectic filmmaker Richard Linklater directs a gem about one actor's time in the Orson Welles' acting troupe in 1937.
As played by Christian McKay, Orson Welles the man, the megalomaniac and genius is brought vividly to life. Though Mr. McKay's role is essentially a lead he's almost certain to be remembered come Oscar time in a supporting capacity for his excellent work. He's a scenery chewer, but secreted deep within his towering work are traces of his character's insecurity that only occasionally arise.
Zac Efron wonderfully portrays Richard, a young and talented artist who can sing, act and basically stand on his head while frying an egg on his feet in the hot sun. Richard appears to be no match however for Welles, whose brisk, vigorous and vituperative nature wears thin on a lot of the troupe at Welles' famous Mercury Theater Company, where he's fine-tuning Julius Caesar for its big New York City opening.
Clare Danes is great here as Sonja, a smart, sharp-tongued and decisive older woman who knows the lay of the land and with whom Richard falls in love. Richard essentially has one week to straighten up and fly right in order to survive the grueling, break-neck pace that Welles employs. It will be an education that he will never forget.
"Me And Orson Welles" is a sunny, very funny experience and Mr. Linklater directs it with a "you are there" immediacy. He has an amazing ear and capacity for recreating the chaotic atmosphere that is the stage world, remaining true to both the essence of the time and place surrounding it. Mr. Linklater, who has directed such wide-ranging efforts as "Slacker", "Before Sunrise", "Fast Food Nation" and "School Of Rock", is full of surprises and clever devices as he springs this charming and enjoyable entertainment upon us.
Special kudos must be given to the adapted screenplay written by Vince Palmo and Holly Gent Palmo, which is priceless and almost certainly the year's best. Their remarkable script is based on Robert Kaplow's book of the same title. There's a nice subplot involving an aspiring writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) who is looking to get her work published for the first time and the interplay between Richard and Greta, is sweet and endearing, all thanks to Mr. Efron (seen earlier this year in "17 Again") and Ms. Kazan, on screen in today's release in San Francisco of "The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee".
There are very good supporting performances by Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan in particular. Mr. Chaplin plays a stage-shy performer who is readying for his role as Mark Antony in Caesar and Mr. Marsan is the Mercury Theater Company manager. He is brilliant here. But the star of this show is undeniably Mr. McKay and he's worth much more than the price of admission here.
Me and Orson Welles is your classic coming-of-age-story/high-school-theater-
And the kid is Zac Efron. He's supposed to be Richard Samuels, a precocious (and fictional) Jersey high-school boy with a passion for theater and music, but he's less a hungry '30s teen than a modern star in period dress. And that works just fine for the part. Those sparkling blue eyes suggest a kid dazzled by the lights and the glow of the great Welles, magnificent monster of the stage: genius, tyrant, seductive charmer, overflowing with ideas and ego, and eager for an adoring audience not yet tired of his need for attention.
Cast on the strength of his one-man Orson Welles stage show, McKay doesn't just look like the baby-faced young director. He captures the distinctive timbre that made him the busiest voice on radio, the puckish smile that would melt across his face, the mercurial personality that could flash into a rage then transition effortlessly into a rousing speech to rally the troops. Richard's story is eclipsed whenever scene-stealer Welles is on-screen, due as much to an underwritten role as to Efron's engaging but weightless performance. We never really know who Richard is, just that he's had the ride of his life.
Despite premiering to justifiable critical acclaim at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, Richard Linklater's (Before Sunset, Slacker) enchanting Me and Orson Welles languished in exhibition limbo for nearly a year before finally securing an American distribution deal. Yet instead of the Weinstein-era Miramax or present-day Sony Classics — two savvy distributors who could have parlayed Welles to art-house riches and Oscar gold — the Linklater movie is finally dribbling into theaters under the auspices of Freestyle Releasing, a company whose biggest theatrical hit to date is The Collector, a cruddy, sub-Saw torture-porn flick. C'est tragique, non?
But don't let that impecunious imprimatur deter you from savoring one of the most purely enjoyable films of this or any other year. A valentine to a life in the theater — and a giant kiss to the precocious genius of the 22-year-old Orson Welles — Linklater's charming lagniappe deserves as wide an audience as possible. Framed against the impossibly romantic backdrop of 1937 Manhattan — lovingly recreated on the Isle of Man — and Welles' then nascent Mercury Theater, Me and Orson Welles freely mix-and-matches historical personages (Welles, John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd) with fictional characters (including Zac Efron's "Me" and Claire Danes as Mercury Gal Friday Sonja Jones).
Based on the equally whimsical novel by Robert Kaplow, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo's witty, literate screenplay is as much of a coming-of-age story as Linklater's Dazed and Confused. After being recruited by Welles to play a small role in an upcoming Mercury production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, brash high schooler Richard Samuels (Efron, proving that he's more than just a teen heartthrob) gets a crash course on the legitimate thea-tuh (and oversized theatrical egos) and, naturally, love. Danes, in her most charming performance since Shopgirl, makes Sonja as irresistible to the audience as she is to virginal, shrinking violet Richard.
British actor Christian McKay wins MVP honors for his uncannily spot-on portrayal of Welles. Not only does McKay capture the famously sonorous Welles voice (easy enough for any celebrity impersonator), but he also finesses Welles' fabled charm, his larger-than-life persona and the pesky hubris that would eventually prove to be his downfall, years after the events chronicled in this movie. Me and Orson Welles is not only the director's most unexpected film to date, it's also his most unexpectedly delightful.
San Francisco Sentinel
ME AND ORSON WELLES is the most stylish film of 2009. Fans of the year 1937 – get ready for a visual feast. The cars, the clothes, the cocktail lounges, the Mercury Theatre. Back then, its Director, Orson Welles, is a household name and a recognized vocal artist. Families bundle about the radio, getting the willies just listening to Welles’ weekly series, “The Shadow”. But how will his New York audience react to the Mercury’s newest production, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? It must have been a success. The following year the Company produced the legendary broadcast, War of the Worlds, scaring some folks into their bomb shelters. Orson will play “Brutus”, friend to and final assassin of the Roman emperor. It could tank. The production is set in fascist Italy. Enter the “Me” of the story, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron). He is suddenly swept out of obscurity by Mr. Welles and assigned to the minor role of “Lucius”. The clock is ticking on the Opening Night performance. This could be the start of something Big.
Christian McKay has an uncanny resemblance to the late Orson Welles. Director Richard Linklater captures his face in many a familiar angle from such classics as Citizen Kane, Jane Eyre, and The Magnificent Ambersons. Likewise, actor James Tupper as “Joseph Cotten”. The effect upon the screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. is fabulous.
Zac Efron is totally charming. The camera adores him. Cinematographer Dick Pope gives Efron the 1937 version of the “Star Treatment” – his close-ups are stunning, the lighting is always to his advantage. All Efron has to do is show up and speak. Film editor Sandra Adair reels-in a worthy performance.
Ben Chaplin as “George Coulouris” is a sure-fire candidate for Best Supporting Actor. His job is to play “Mark Antony”. The problem? Even after the theater has survived a nearly total wet-down – caused by Richard’s prank of triggering the emergency sprinkler system – the play may not open at all. The last ticket has been sold and the seemingly secure Coulouris is slumped in his dressing room on the verge of a total nervous breakdown. Orson will use his magnanimous personality to snap him back into sufficient sanity, along with a bottle of scotch to relax his tongue into iambic pentameter. Welles also gives him the usual b/s line about being “a natural actor”. He’s already pulled it on boy Richard – who seems to have fallen for it, even to the point of trying to horn-in on the director’s latest squeeze, production assistant “Sonja Jones” (Claire Danes). Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of nerves gone raw and crushing fears of inadequacy are frighteningly real. But the Wellesian Spell works. Coulouris delivers a magnificent performance, the play is a success, and Richard is fired as the curtain descends. Another cute boy, perhaps cuter, will step into the role of “Lucius” come 8:00 tomorrow night.
Welles is a charismatic manipulator and pushy bastard. Such is life, art, and politics at the Mercury Theatre. ME AND ORSON WELLES is a winner.
We Are Austin
Of his 15 films, Director Richard Linklater has done so many different kinds of movies. Me and Orson Welles is his love letter to the theater. Based on true events, this dramedy is about doing a play. He brings the life of Orson Welles to a whole new generation with the help of High School Musical’s icon Zac Efron. Orson Welles, who died in 1985 at the age of 70, was an amazing American film director, writer and actor best known for his films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Already considered as a prodigy for his work in theater and radio, Welles was 22-years-old when he and John Houseman started the Mercury Theatre Company in New York.
In Me and Orson Welles, it is 1937 New York and 17-year-old Richard Samuels (played by Efron) walks right into a job of playing Lucius in a production of Julius Caesar directed by a young Orson Welles (played by British newcomer Christian McKay) at his legendary Mercury Theatre. One week before opening night, they must rehearse over and over. Many difficulties come about as tensions rise and personalities clash on stage and off. Orson Welles is arrogant and is confident that the play will be a success pushing his actors to be first-rate. Richard is confident as well, but in contrast, someone that is unsure about where he is going.
Richard takes an interest in theater production assistant Sonja Jones (pronounced Sonya) who is much older than he is. Sonja (Claire Danes) will do anything to advance her career, even sleep with Orson Welles or anyone important in the industry, and she doesn’t apologize for it. This creates a triangle as Richard wants to spend more time with his new love.
In Me and Orson Welles, Linklater continues with his sophisticated style of filmmaking. However, I have mixed feelings about the casting of Zac. It’s great he took on a serious role such as this, but due to his pop culture status, I never felt like I was in 1937. His performance was underplayed, but for the reason of presenting his character’s naivety. Nonetheless, he gives a lot of effort in his role and drawing a crowd that an independent film couldn’t do alone. Christian McKay, who drops his British accent for the role, is brilliant and captures a likeness of Orson Welles that no one else could accomplish. I look forward to seeing him in future performances.
The Scorecard Review
WHO’S IT FOR? Fans of Welles will likely cherish this wonderful impersonation even more so than squads of slightly grown up Efron fans who experiment with the High School Musical actor’s attempt at something a bit different. The film isn’t exclusive to either of these groups, as its comedy reaches past those who are aware of Welles’ quirks or Efron’s looks.
EXPECTATIONS: How would the expected drama with Efron balance with the true story of Welles’ magnificence? Would the legend’s impersonator, McKay, be able to effectively duplicate both his iconic look and voice? Even with all of that said, the name of School of Rock (among others) director Richard Linklater was enough to make this a curious watch.
Zac Efron as Richard Samuels: Don’t throw major accolades at him just yet: Efron is still playing a young whippersnapper with the power of attraction that can make any female weak at the knees, especially older women like Danes. His vocal pipes are on display, but they are applied to a beautiful lonesome melody heard at the end of “Julius Caesar” in a moment that should defeat any foul cries of his HSM skills impeding on a film about Orson Welles. As for being Orson Welles’ “Junior,” Richard gets a little melodramatic when he discovers what heartbreak is, but these moments are meant to be naïve. This isn’t the role that will get Efron access to truly mature characters, but it’s a solid step toward that very goal.
Christian McKay as Orson Welles: Wow. It’s spectacular casting that this project was able to find someone with the same cheeks and eyes of Welles, never mind an actor able to duplicate such an iconic voice (something that had only been able to be done by Maurice LaMarche, voice of cartoon character The Brain). This is one of the best impersonations ever of the legend, as McKay’s performance pays careful attention to the tiniest details of Welles’ swagger, including his headjerks. The man Orson Welles is a fascinating character by himself, with his unpredictable actions and boundless intelligence. He was also a very funny man (apparently). Philip Seymour Hoffman got award recognition for a cloning of Truman Capote – this is certainly possible for newcomer McKay.
Claire Danes as Sonja Jones: This easygoing ambassador to the Mercury Players also offers Richard an intriguing side tour into sexuality. Contrasted to the egotistical thespians in the group, Sonja is charming, even if her career success-through-sex attitude is a bit depressing. Danes puts a natural sweetness into this role that is as mature as it is youthful, especially when she has to play the “Efron’s a heartthrob” card – even though the actor is 17 here.
TALKING: Speaking with timely vernacular with slang like “bunk,” Me and Orson Welles has the timing of a play, with its actors following dialogue beats more similar to a theatrical production of its own. This method gives it a slight push towards fantasy. Efron has a few corny lines, (all of which appear in the trailer), that we could have done without. “Sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life” is an unwelcome layer of cheese.
SIGHTS: There are numerous references to future works that will come from Welles, most of these occurring in dialogue. However, there’s a very clever shot with Joseph Cotten that echoes the one Welles will later make classic in Carol Reed’s The Third Man in 1939. Linklater’s recreation of “Julius Caesar,” which is presented in an abridged yet cohesive version, is about as intense as I imagine the real version from 1937 had intended. The production design, especially the costuming, expands the film’s wonderful visual palette.
SOUNDS: A careful selection of beautiful tunes from the era help make this one of the better soundtracks to feature songs from the 1930’s. Sweet melodies like “I Surrender Dear,” “Let’s Pretend There’s A Moon,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” compliment the aesthetic prettiness of the film and contribute even more to its period piece authenticity.
BEST SCENE: The scene that involves Welles discussing The Magnificent Ambersons with Richard, and later on presenting it with his radio group. It is the only moment in the movie that hints at the man’s cinematic adaptation of the work, and it is a great example of Welles’ power behind a microphone. This scene is also a showcase for McKay’s voice that should impress the skeptics.
ENDING: During the applause they receive opening night, Welles smiles to himself and says, “How do I top this?” To everyone’s surprise, Richard’s future with the Mercury Players is soon cut short.
QUESTIONS: Just how big of a Welles fan is the Dazed and Confused director anyway?
REWATCHABILITY: It would be a pleasure to experience McKay’s performance again, while also keeping a sharp eye out for all of the references to Welles’ career. Maybe after a third view, the “love story” between Efron and Danes will get a bit tired.
Is it a coincidence that director Linklater shares the first name of Efron’s character? A “yes” answer would only make the most sense, as Me and Orson Welles is a classic film geek’s dream. It presents Welles when he’s on the brink of his magnificence (his masterpiece Citizen Kane would be in the sequel). The vivacious costume colors and theatrical pacing of the film make it more of a fantasy, and even the love story between young Richard and decade-older Sonja is something most of us, (those not named Zac Efron, at least), could only imagine. To watch the Mercury Players clash with their egos in their beginning moments of success is a treat, but McKay’s impersonation of Welles is a whole other dessert. The newcomer’s performance is that geek’s dream coming true, as he presents a recreation of Orson Welles that is entirely faithful to the legend’s egotistical aura, down to his love for magic, food, and most of all, himself. With an enchanting film like Linklater’s, it becomes even easier to understand why he’d be so enamored with the latter.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
The infamous 1937 Mercury Theatre staging of Julius Caesar is given a magnificent treatment in director Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. Linklater approaches the story of one of theater history's greatest happenings with a surprisingly intimate eye and a true sense of authenticity.
This was Orson Welles before he broadcast War of the Worlds or directed Citizen Kane. The sort of things he was pulling off in theater—like staging Caesar with a modern feel (he set the story in then-contemporary Fascist Italy)—were remarkably ahead of their time, and Linklater creates a fantastic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants portrayal of a theater company not entirely confident in what they were doing.
As portrayed in the film, Welles (a remarkable Christian McKay) has enough boorish self-esteem to propel the entire company while his suffering cast tries to learn their lines and staging amid their director's strange rehearsal schedule. Linklater portrays those jitters as something that's as routine as breathing for these performers. The show would be nothing if it weren't a bit nerve-racking.
At the center of the story is Richard Samuels, a fictional 17-year-old played by none other than Mr. High School Musical himself, Zac Efron. Efron showed some spunk earlier this year in the silly 17 Again, and his work here is further proof that the guy could have a decent future as an actor.
The setup for the story is a bit improbable but entertaining. Samuels simply stops by a new place in his neighborhood, the Mercury Theatre, and auditions for the role of Lucius on the spot; he gets the gig, something that conflicts wildly with his high school schedule. Within a day, he's rubbing elbows with the likes of John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) while wooing one of Welles' assistants, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
Danes plays Sonja as a woman who is sensible on the surface, but a little whacked with screwed-up priorities underneath. To her, having to spend a "romantic" evening with Orson Welles is just part of the deal, a stepping-stone toward stardom.
McKay, who is considerably older than the Welles he is portraying in the film, simply owns the role. Welles has been portrayed many times in movies, but this performance is the one for the time capsule. It doesn't feel like an impersonation; it feels like Welles has risen from the grave, in pre-Kane form, and thrown himself into the film as a favor to Linklater. McKay's Welles is a completely brilliant bastard; it's both a somewhat unflattering and loving portrayal of one of entertainment history's greatest geniuses.
As for the actual staging of the play, Linklater captures it all: the missed cues, the pre-show breakdowns, the near-tragedies and the terrible rehearsal the night before the show opens. He does such a great job that you actually get the sense that you are in the show with the actors when the curtain finally rises.
When Linklater's staging of Welles' work was finished, I was left impressed by his interpretation of what might've happened, and very envious of those who got to see the real deal back in 1937.
Having participated in some small theater-company productions, I can say that those of you who have done theater will be mesmerized. Linklater most definitely captures the thrills and the insanity.
It won’t be for this pleasant bauble — and there’s no way to tell exactly for what it will be, given his varied filmography — but Richard Linklater will eventually win an Academy Award. The Texas-born indie auteur brings to bear his characteristically spry touch to yet another very different sort of movie than he’s done before in the lively Me and Orson Welles, a romantic coming-of-age story set in 1937.
Rooted in real theatrical history, the film is about a fictionalized teenage actor, Richard (Zac Efron, a bit out of his element), who lucks into a small role in a re-imagined Julius Caesar being helmed by a brilliant, impetuous young director named Orson Welles at his newly founded Mercury Theater in New York City. The rollercoaster week leading up to opening night has the charismatic but frequently cruel Welles (an amazing Christian McKay) staking his career on this risky production, while Richard mixes with everyone from starlets to stagehands in behind-the-scenes adventures bound to change him. Caught up in an unlikely love triangle is Sonja (Claire Danes), the unapologetically ambitious assistant to Welles whom Richard tries to woo.
The fast-moving screenplay is adapted from Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel of the same name, and it offers up plenty of towel-snapping dialogue and amusing details, like Welles using ambulances as taxis, just because they’re able to navigate through traffic faster. Meanwhile, McKay nails Welles’ sonorous voice, as well as his seductive charm, humor, and ego. The only nagging problem is that the film’s Richard-Sonja romance utterly doesn’t play. Much more intriguing is Zoe Kazan as an aspirant writer whom Richard haphazardly befriends; you wish she’d wander into the Mercury Theater and boot Danes’ character to the side.
Welles at one point delivers a soliloquy in which he comments on someone’s “bone-deep understanding that existence is so without meaning that one must reinvent self,” and while Linklater’s canon is anything but nihilistic, his credits are so diverse as to seemingly underscore an offscreen appreciation of that sentiment.
Would Like This: Fans of Richard Linklater, Cradle Will Rock,
Four out of five
The "me" is Zac Efron, the aging teen heartthrob looking to extend his shelf life, in Me and Orson Welles, a coming-of-age film of Robert Kaplow's young-adult novel about a teenager who spends one lucky week with Welles' Mercury Theatre, in which he makes his Broadway debut, loses his virginity, and learns the usual life lessons. One day Richard is just walking down the street and stumbles on Welles' company, which is looking for a boy who can sing a song the director has interpolated from the third act of Shakespeare's Henry VIII into a 90-minute Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy. Richard is soon acting alongside neurotic master thespian George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and dashing ladykiller Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), and falls hard for a Holyoke grad (Claire Danes) who is sleeping her way to David O. Selznick.
But the real star is Christian McKay, whose uncanny mimicry of Welles is almost enough reason to see this movie, a departure for the Austin-based slacker chronicler Richard Linklater, which, with its limited budget and unconvincing London soundstage recreation of 1937 New York, would have been a better fit on HBO. Still, Welles fans will appreciate this glimpse at a legendary figure who at only 21 was already living large, juggling ballerinas and taking an ambulance to his radio gigs. But then there's Efron, who isn't a good enough actor to have gotten a job pulling the Mercury Theatre's curtain. A once engaging performer who started to slide into narcissism with High School Musical 2, Efron seems more interested in catching his reflection in the camera lens than in Danes, or in poor Zoe Kazan, who plays the homely aspiring writer he ditches for his brief shot at the big time.
Two and a half stars
East Bay Express
Once upon a time, actor Vincent D'Onofrio was the Orson Welles impersonation champ. He's been dethroned. In director Richard Linklater's warm and cozy nostalgic drama Me and Orson Welles, Englishman Christian McKay walks off with the prize, and he'll be difficult to top — the 37-year-old McKay's got the heft, the face, the voice, and the mannerisms. No telling how many times he's watched Citizen Kane.
Linklater's backstage story focuses on the Mercury Theatre's 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, the run-up to Kane and an important step in what was to become the Welles legend. Through the eyes of an aspiring young actor named Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron) and his would-be girlfriend Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater company's front office assistant, we discover that everyone involved was horny: Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Sonja, Richard, and Welles, on the make for stardom. One way or another, everybody gets laid.
Santa Barbara Independent
Me & Orson Welles, director Richard Linklater’s tautly focused valentine to the famous writer/actor/director, is a fine film that could be better, but is more or less blessed and cursed by the Orson factor. To the point, the clear star of this intriguing but wobbly film is its Orson Welles, played with great charm, swagger, and monomaniacal glee by British stage actor Christian McKay (who also bears uncanny resemblance to Welles, in word and appearance). He is the reason to see the film.
While the title specifically refers to the point of view of a perky high school kid hired, on short notice, for a bit part in the legendary N.Y.C. production of Julius Caesar by Welles’s Mercury Theatre, the “me” in question must also reflect on Linklater’s own long-distance relationship to Welles. Unfortunately, the “me” in the film’s narrative equation, Zac Efron, is out of his acting depth in the project, overshadowed by McKay and his sometime/would-be lover, played by Claire Danes. Too many scenes in the film proceed limply, although Linklater manages to conjure up a rare atmospheric behind-the-scenes field report from the realm of theater, with its agonies, ecstasies, raging egos, and infectious ensemble zeal.
Almost as an incidental—yet also looming—footnote, the film inspires Welles-ian awe and reminds us of the director’s brilliant and meteoric career. He was a mere 22 years old at the time of the Mercury Theatre phenom, and was only 26 when he painted his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, which also, infamously and ironically, tarnished his future potential in the American movie kingdom. Me and Orson Welles could have used a few Welles-ian touches to save it from … itself.
During the Q&A of his film Tape, Richard Linklater remarked that it took a lot for a story to grab him and that when mining literary material for cinematic possibilities he was particularly selective, looking for that new voice to make the filmmaking exercise worth doing. It was 2001, and he had just finished Tape and Waking Life, two unique projects that held firm to this principle. Had you asked me then of whom did I consider to be the five greatest directors still working, his name would have certainly come up. But something has changed, in me perhaps, but I feel it also in his more recent work, this palpable shift in principle, with certain projects that he has chosen clearly suggesting a disinterest in the ‘new voice’ he so fondly spoke of before. Films like Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, even School of Rock, and now added to the list, Me and Orson Welles.
What I find so frustrating about such a film as Me and Orson Welles is not that it is a bad film but rather that it is so middling in its efforts, so willing to be conventional in every way and let a consistent state of déjà-vu infect the presiding of yet another backstage thespian story. Even more contemptible because it is Richard Linklater at the helm, someone fresh off of A Scanner Darkly, someone whose talents need not be wasted.
Visually and performance-wise there is a lot to enjoy about this recreation of a period in Orson Welles career when he helmed a lauded production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury theater in New York. Here we have a Welles prior to his many successes as a movie star and director, yet still admired for his radio and theater work, a colossus of talent around which everyone encircled, patiently waiting for him to begin. The main occupation of the Mercury theater is to wait for Orson, and as the production teeters on the edge of collapse, we watch an artist in his element take from the chaos that which makes greatness in art. We watch from a particular point of view, that of a budding thespian, Richard Samuels, who spends his time learning about the theory of the world in high school only to have it materialize at the Mercury. The film is intended to be a love letter to actors, and an affectionate look at a time and place when the business and the world around it felt bursting with possibilities, everything tinged in nostalgia (unfortunately never going for more than soft light admiration).
While full of some nice comedic bits at the expense of a sometimes cartoony impression of a brutish dictator in Welles, the ambition of recreating a sense of the world behind the play felt incomplete, relying too much on archetype characters doing archetype things and lacking any of richness of detail that something like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy was in abundance of. Everything felt conveniently laid out, and the love story was completely telegraphed from the very first scene, and in this respect of relying so heavily on conventions I feel disappointed with this latest effort.
But really I can sort of understand why it was done, and anybody who sees this film will within the first ten minutes come to the same realization: Christian McKay IS Orson Welles. Now I know we have all seen our share of imitations, Cate Blanchet as Katherine Hepburn, Jamie Fox as Ray Charles, but let me say definitively, and once again, Christian McKay IS Orson Welles. He does not just nail the voice, he without any prosthetic nose or such looks like a dead ringer of him! How do you find someone who looks like the man, sounds like the man, and on top of it all can genuinely act? Christian McKay is a miracle, an oddity, a freak show that one delights in with ever second he is onscreen. It seems fitting that for a story about the craft of acting that the one great achievement of the film is the meta-admiration of a real actor doing otherworldly things. There can me no doubt that no matter how inoffensively average this film is, Christian McKay will be nominated at next years Academy Awards and likely win.
A real charmer, "Me and Orson Welles" is the work of a director who takes nostalgia, romantic possibility and the theater seriously, without being a pill about it.
Richard Linklater's film version of the Robert Kaplow novel tells a fairy tale based in fact.
Strolling the Manhattan theater district one day in 1937, the story's fictional protagonist, a New Jersey high school student played by Zac Efron, stumbles into Orson Welles, John Houseman and their Mercury Theatre associates.
In an eye-blink, young Richard is hired to play the lute-strumming role of Lucius in Welles' modern-dress revival of "Julius Caesar," opening in a mere week.
These were history-making times for Welles. Already in 1937 the impresario's involvement with the incendiary musical "The Cradle Will Rock" (Tim Robbins made a rather hectoring film about it) burnished the Wellesian reputation for nerve and publicity. Welles' "Julius Caesar," drawing eerie parallels with Mussolini's regime, featured actors Welles would use later in Hollywood, ranging from panicky Brit George Coulouris (played in Linklater's film by Ben Chaplin) to elegant Virginia horn-dog Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). "Me and Orson Welles" has Richard falling for the Mercury's jill-of-all-trades, Sonja, played by Claire Danes. Her character is neither a simple ingenue nor a vamp. Danes, reliably excellent, creates a woman of ambition as well as heart.
The film's press so far has focused on Christian McKay's portrayal of Welles, and it is indeed something to see. Even more so, to hear: McKay (who is British, and a fair bit older than was 22-year-old Welles in 1937) gives us a boy-man who, practically since birth, has been told he is a genius with a fantastically expressive voice, and who uses that voice for theatrical effect even when he's nowhere near a stage. The script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo stays true to novelist Kaplow's source material, setting Welles up as the maelstrom who wises up a teenager and then whirls onward.
Much of the film was shot on the Isle of Man, with bits of London filling in for Depression-era Manhattan. Not since Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan portrait "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), detailing the birth of "The Mikado," has a film devoted so much screen time to the ins and outs of theatrical endeavor so rewardingly. (Cinematographer Dick Pope, a master at evocative interior lighting, worked on both pictures.) This theatrical bent may be surprising given director Linklater's resume; then again, the resume in question is one of the most unpredictable in contemporary American cinema, zigzagging from the hazy Texas ambience of "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" to the quiet, piquant marvels "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" to "The School of Rock" and "Fast Food Nation."
Working on a modest budget, Linklater manages some lovely visual flourishes, my favorite being a tracking shot that scurries, puppylike, after Welles as he rushes from theatrical rehearsal to a radio gig at CBS. This isn't a bravura, strolling-into-the-Copa-in-"GoodFellas" example of the single take. Rather, it's unostentatiously interesting -- controlled chaos, crystallizing the chaos as lived, and generated, by Welles.
Three and a half stars
Orson Welles is an icon of the 20th century. A man who was world famous while still in his twenties, he crafted some of the most important films ever presented. His first work, Citizen Kane, is considered by AFI to be the best film of all time. While I think that Casablanca owns that little title, I will grant Welles all the genius that was his camera placement and storytelling flairs. He changed the way that film stories were made. But before that, his Mercury Theater commanded the radio, giving America deeply moving cultural moments. Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast was so perfect that it caused a mass hysteria. But before that, the Mercury Theater was a actual theater company, performing plays in their own space. It is there that we meet with Me and Orson Welles.
The film opens in 1937. Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is a kid who dreams of a career on the boards of the theater. He takes off for the city and meets a lovely young girl Gretta (Zoe Kazan) who is struggling to become a writer. This chance encounter morphs into a walk in front of a theater, the Mercury Theater. He happens on Orson Welles (Christian McKay), who is in the process of firing a minor actor in his vision of Shakespeare’s work Julius Caesar. Orson asks Richard is he can play a ukulele. Richard lies and says that he can.
Thus, Richard is thrown into the manic world of the theater. He soon discovers that making art is a clash of personalities with every person caught in the fray. Richard meets production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) who shows this naive waif the ropes that is a professional performance. We also get a big helping of Orson, a man with a pregnant wife, a mistress and several other women on the side. Orson sees no problem with using an ambulance to get around the city, siren blaring. In one scene, he does a radio play with no rehearsal and improvises a scene live, a scene that he rehearsed just minutes before. He is a magician, and Richard gets to see some of the secrets of Orson’s work.
Richard and Sonja immediately click and begin to date. The young Richard doesn’t seem to realize that Sonja is the kind of determined woman who will use any means necessary to achieve her goals, no matter who it hurts. She wants to use Orson as a stepping stone to meeting David O. Selznick, who is planning his newest venture, Gone With the Wind.
We get a hands-on look on how a production goes from general thoughts to active crafted work. Richard finds that the journey to opening night is befouled with both temperamental actors and angered craftsman. Parts are riotously funny and other parts are pain-painstakingly hurtful. Along the way, Richard discovers both his passions and his anchors in the crazed business that is show.
Christian McKay becomes Orson Welles in this movie. He is all pomp and brute while being charming and brilliant in the mix. The audience is drawn into a man who is part genius and part superstitious kid, waiting for the ‘bad thing’ to happen. There should be a Oscar nomination in this performance so full of bullish wit and grace. His Orson is lean and barbarous, wanting to create ‘the best art we can’ and telling every actor just what they need to hear in order to make his vision a perfection.
This is another step for Zac Efron to break away from his teen idol status. While it is so hard for young actors to break away from their past roles, Zac shows that he can act right along with the more lauded . His character learns the hard lessons of theater which transcend into hard life lesson. Never does one question his acting or commitment to the role, both on and off the stage
Claire Danes comes across as somewhere between driven and sincere in her reading of Sonja. She sees nothing wrong with a ‘week of love’ a fleeting affair as long as it is just casual and doesn’t get in the way of her career. Her Sonja is not a mean person, just a determined one.
The find of Me and Orson Welles is young Zoe Kazan as Gretta. She is a representation of the purity of art, the person who wants to tell a tale, not for fame or glory, but to get a reaction on the human condition. Though not a striking beauty, she is an attainable one with a pure soul outweighing any exterior flaw.
This era is both my favorite cinematic time and historical time. It is rich in both culture and context, making a rich palette for storytelling The costumes and sets just feel right to the point that you never question that this film wasn’t made in 1937. Director Richard Linklater takes us a note perfect journey to both the theater and the nature of ego in creating genius. The only truly sad part of Me and Orson Welles was that it ended.
Indeed it is a perfectly fine movie, telling a terrific backstage story with a central capture of a young Welles which tells you a hell of a lot more about the man than any trad biopic would. The film comes on like a Woody Allen period piece, with an eye (and ear) for period detail but filmed on a pretty closed set for budget and story reasons. This is a backstage story you can imagine taking place down the street from Bullets Over Broadway, and shares a generous sense of humour with that film, whilst managing to do Orson Welles the kind of justice that a grand biopic couldn’t do. Indeed Citizen Kane contains within it the best reason not to make such a film about Welles, and not just his own talent for self deceits and fakery. And what better way to discover who Welles really was, but with a fake story starring Zac Efron.
Efron does his job well here, he is pretty, he is a proper male lead which allows Christian McKay to do his extremely impressive Welles. Clearly there is some impersonation here, but there is more of a sense of quicksilver wit, of capricity of a very clever man before the world had battered him into submission. Showing that even at his high point what an egomaniac he was, whilst showing why everyone wanted to work with him and even a sense of the man whose last film would be Transformers The Movie. All through this Richard Linklater makes that notoriously difficult thing to do, the properly family friendly movie. It’ll appeal to anyone who has seen a Welles film (or remembers any voice-overed advert). It’ll sync with anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of acting school or beyond. There is a sweet romance bubbling under the surface and there are characters who are fascinating to watch. Plus no end of Welles Easter eggs, and Linklater ones for that matter.
Perhaps it shows Linklater’s comfort in the film in that the open five minute contains a massive self deprecating gag. As Efron’s Richard, hanging in the big city, gets chatting to wannabe writer Gretta she starts talking about her writing. She riffs on a story idea from their cold meet, what about a story about two people, who enjoy each others company and then never see each other again. They both dismiss it: though you can see that Gretta is taken with the idea. They are of course describing Before Sunrise, Linklater’s signature film, and there is a sly nod in this internal criticism. Exactly the type of thing that Welles would do. And that slyness, is in the end what makes Me And Orson Welles so enjoyable. While the film does not take itself that seriously, it takes the subject, of putting on a play, deathly serious and the result is one of the best backstage films in years. Couple that with a fascinating Welles act and the winning Zac Efron, you get a film that is just solidly entertaining. Despite its pretty horrible poster.
Living in Cinema
Last but not least was Me and Orson Welles. It almost didn’t happen because something about it just didn’t appeal to me, but it was playing at the same theater as A Single Man and I wasn’t ready to go home so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be the most enjoyable movie of the weekend. These kinds of biographical period pieces can get pretty stale, but Richard Linklater infuses the story with a zesty fascination for show business (there’s no business like it) and show people (there’s no…never mind) and he gets terrific performances out of every member of the cast from top to bottom. Christian McKay is the driving force as Orson Welles, perfectly capturing not only his speech and mannerisms, but also his energy, temper and arrogance. Zac Efron has a less showy and in some ways more difficult part, but he holds his own. He balances his character’s youthful eagerness and unearned cockiness with a surprising maturity and intelligence. Claire Danes is also terrific as the sharp and friendly but somewhat jaded career girl who shows Efron the ropes. It’s symptomatic of the lack of imagination endemic in the Oscar chattering class that this movie isn’t getting talked up more. It has everything Oscar could want without stinking of Oscar bait.