Et tu Welles, eh?
Starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay. Directed by Richard Linklater. Based on the book by Robert Kaplow.
A love letter meticulously rooted in 1937 New York City.
“What if?” is a time-immemorial question of storytelling. For example, “what if” the audience could live vicariously through a character at a specific moment in time integral to pop culture history. Movies and television show have placed characters anywhere and everywhere in time. Whether it's Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan meeting Billy the Kid, Socrates, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud and Abe Lincoln; Dr. Sam Beckett meeting 'Chubby' Checker and Stephen King; Forrest Gump meeting Elvis, JFK, and LBJ; or even H.G. Wells hunting down a time-machine stealing Jack the Ripper, we go along for the ride as we get a view of iconic figures through the eyes of the protagonist.
Such is the case of the movie (based on the book) “Me and Orson Welles.” We're transported to 1937 where young actor Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old high school student (Efron, even in Hollywood, can't leave High School), is taking a class on Shakespeare. He meets a Greta (Zoe Kazan). She enjoys playing piano but loves writing even more. By happenstance he arrives at the Mercury Theatre and, as luck would have it, auditions for Welles (McKay) himself. Agreeing to take a part where he has to play a ukulele (“There's no ukulele in Julius Caesar!”) Welles gives him the part of Lucius, who reports to Brutus and sings to him one last time before certain death.
Quickly, Richard is inaugurated into the Mercury Theatre Company. There's Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) who plays a street poet, ladies' man Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Couloris (Ben Chaplin) the “professional” actor, Muriel Brassler (Kelly Reilly) the diva actress, and Sonja (Danes), the all-around secretary who dreams of stardom via meeting producer David O. Selznick. These are a few of the satellites orbiting Orson Welles.
Loud. Confident. Commanding. Knowledgeable. Within moments of Welles on the screen we're drawn into the hurricane of his persona and what the Mercury Theatre Company deals with: a man who controls every aspect of production. A man who uses the ambulance to cut through city traffic to get from one place to another. A man with a million things going on at once and arrives at nearly the last minute, pulling it all off. A man who has a pregnant wife and multiple girlfriends. A man who finds himself constrained by financiers.
Richard bonds with the secretary, falling in love with her. The theater company goes through the highs and lows of Welles' direction which changes from one moment to the next as they approach their Thursday night deadline. From an “unexplained” triggering of the sprinkler system, to dealing with his parents and missing school, to confronting Welles about the girl, Richard goes from one event to the next in order to find out what he wants to do with his future as well as finding true love.
I'm not a big fan of the persona of the real-life Orson Welles but I do acknowledge his impact on the world of film. “Citizen Kane” left its imprint upon culture, as well as the events surrounding it, and seemingly inspired VH1's “Behind the Music” series. Welles' “The Trial” with Anthony Perkins was really good. “Touch of Evil” is one of my favorite movies. But Welles himself? Not a big fan.
Linklater prefers to color Welles as the up-and-comer; a man with a tremendous vision and a love of the theater (again, before the historical events that led to his downfall). He makes him interesting and even likable (even though the “Mercurians” are at wit's end with him). McKay embodies Welles as no other actor before; not only does he sound and physically come across as Welles, but he looks damn close to him. Danes is sweet and beautiful as the secretary/love interest. And Efron? His protagonist takes second-billing to the star of Welles and while it may seem that he does little more than smiling and walking around so we, the audience, spend as much time with Welles as we can Efron does do a Shakespeare reading toward the end of the film that shows yes, he can act (I can't vouch for any of his other work at this time).
I really enjoyed this movie and put it under my “pleasantly surprised” category. Y'know, the one where you go in not expecting much but the film delivers more than you thought it capable. The film works on its sweet charm, sense of nostalgia, and just being an intriguing story overall. It really does root itself in 1937 and spouts off the time period's pop culture references so that we know it takes itself seriously. The use of music, cartoons, clothing, etc. hammer it all home and there's no moment where I questioned its when and where.
My only real complaint I have on this film is that while everything appeared 1937 on the surface, I was hoping for the late-30's mannerisms and cadence. Clooney's “Leatherheads” achieved the time period's dialog with pitch-perfect accuracy and I was kinda wanting that here but then again it may not have worked given the storyline.
I have one other complaint but it's minor: I wanted to see the WHOLE production of Welles' “Caesar.” Based on the shots Linklater made of the production (some of which were damn cool) he could've made a movie on the premise “What would Welles' 'Caesar' be like in full movie form?” I'm hoping some version of it is put together on the home video release.
This is the type of movie that you go to see because you're a fan of Orson Welles, you're into the “what would it be like to meet Welles in person?” question, or you're into the “love was in front of me all along” formula. Or a combination.
My grade: B+
Breaking news: Zac Efron stars in a good movie! And a Richard Linklater film, no less.
Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, Me and Orson Welles tells the fictional 1937 story of New York high school (not musical) actor Richard Samuels (Efron) and his brush with greatness. Through a chance encounter, Richard gets himself cast at the Mercury Theatre in its production of Julius Caesar directed by none other than Orson Welles himself. Simply titled “Caesar,” the work is Welles’ ambitious attempt to bring to the stage the Shakespeare classic in modern dress with three-piece suits and army uniforms with him playing Brutus.
“We might have a show that people remember for 50 years,” Welles proclaims. Hindsight obviously illustrates that it was remembered much longer than that.
Richard gets a crash course education in theater, paralleled with scenes of him slacking in his comparatively boring high school classes. He also falls in love with the theater’s secretary Sonja played by Claire Danes, whose eyes and smile have never seemed wider. More importantly though, he spends time with Welles himself.
By film’s end, Richard will discover profound things about his better nature. This is Linklater in mainstream, feel-good mode here (Bad News Bears, School of Rock); he lovingly recreates a quainter, more innocent America, a nation of people enamored with the stage and the radio as the magical luxury of the silver screen lords above all the entertainment media of the era. And when it plays on the sound track, one realizes Linklater’s masterful portrait of tone in environment earns him the right to judiciously use Louis Prima’s big-band classic “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).” But while it’s absorbing and endearing, the film all comes down to one performance.
Efron (and his Disney prince-like eyelashes) do a good enough job learning life lessons, Danes lets the camera adore her preciously, and Ben Chaplin and James Tupper turn in great interpretations of their respective roles as George Coulouris and Joseph Cotten, but the movie belongs to Christian McKay and his towering, dynamic portrayal of the powerhouse legend. McKay’s Welles is a mercurial delight to watch: charming, smarmy, inspiring, egotistical, charitable and pompous–sometimes all at the same time. During a particularly bad audition, Welles tells his company, “Our business together is to create art and that’s all that matters in this world.” We genuinely believe him.
Oddly, this causes Me and Orson Welles to be a well-made piece of disposable entertainment. Although a joy to watch, it never goes anywhere unexpected and even ends with the line: “It feels like… it’s all ahead of us.” Ultimately, that very naîveté makes you want to go home and re-watch Citizen Kane. Or maybe that was the whole point.
Nothing takes me out of a movie quicker than Zac Efron acting all pouty, which the Disney heartthrob does halfway through "Me and Orson Welles."
I was kind of feeling the movie until director Richard Linklater gave Efron a moment to get his youthful snit on. Efron is known for his man-beauty, and sullenness doesn't work well on that million-dollar mug.
Efron is the "Me," an eager teenager and aspiring actor. Our wannabe Gielgud gets involved with Mercury Theatre, the ambitious New York troupe run by the equally ambitious, pre-"Citizen Kane" Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Welles and his players are racing against the clock to stage a revamped production of "Julius Caesar," and the youngster talks his way into the company, eventually playing Lucius to Welles' Brutus.
Granted, it sounds intriguing on paper: Transport the "High School Musical" star to the 1930s and have him perform in a production by Mercury Theatre, best known for its "War of the Worlds" broadcast. And the movie has the kind of let's-put-on-a-show exuberance those "Musical" movies traffic in. (Apart from a couple of wide-open moments, Linklater shoots the whole thing in such a boxed-in manner; the story seems more suited for the stage.)
Efron does exhibit the always-prepared stance of a song-and-dance man. With his hands constantly in his pants pockets, you keep thinking he's going to break into a soft-shoe number. (He kind of does at one point.) However, Efron's callow smirking can be off-putting. It's like watching someone do an impersonation of Rob Lowe during his '80s, "St. Elmo's Fire"/"Oxford Blues" prime.
But it's not all Efron's fault. Screenwriting team Vince and Holly Gent Palmo follow the woefully routine, romantic coming-of-age narrative of the Robert Kaplow novel on which the movie is based. Efron's witty, pretty boy looks to win the affections of an older, opportunistic production assistant (Claire Danes - wow, she's the older chick in movies now?) while mildly flirting with an aspiring writer (a moony-eyed Zoe Kazan). But thankfully, Linklater mostly appears concerned with Welles and his crew (Eddie Marsan is an under-pressure John Houseman and Ben Chaplin is persistently pessimistic George Coulouris) rehearsing and staging the play.
These scenes make you wish the movie were more about the temperamental but brilliant Welles, the model of an enfant terrible, if there ever was one. Linklater certainly found an uncanny stand-in for Welles with McKay, who exhibits enough cocky, determined charisma to make you understand why such a caddish, bombastic jerk could have an entire theater company willing to work with him.
The movie is essentially about a young boy becoming a man and all that junk. It's really about Efron proving he can do more than Disney movies. But he needs to keep his poutiness to a minimum. It's that sort of thing that takes an otherwise entertaining flick like "Me and Orson Welles" and turns it into Gilbert and Sullivan tale "Topsy-Turvy" - for the CW-watching crowd.
Las Vegas Weekly
Presented with a movie called Me and Orson Welles, one can’t help but immediately wonder who “me” might be. Joseph Cotten? John Houseman? Paul Masson? Alas, in this case it turns out to be a snot-nosed kid named Richard, played by Zac Efron at his twinkliest. Set in 1937, when Welles—just 21 himself, and not yet a filmmaker—was rehearsing the Mercury Theatre’s legendary fascist-inflected production of Julius Caesar, this adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel focuses not on the great man but on poor hustling Richard, who happens by the Mercury one day and gets drafted to play the small role of Lucius. Needless to say, he gets a crash course not just in stagecraft but also in the care and feeding of titanic egos, especially when he develops a crush on the comely assistant (Danes) with whom Welles is having a casual affair.
Without looking at the credits, you’d never guess that this trifling period piece was directed by Richard Linklater, as it boasts neither the intimacy of a Before Sunset nor the manic energy of a School of Rock. Indeed, the whole movie is little more than an exercise in imaginative nostalgia, and the only real reason to see it is to enjoy British actor Christian McKay’s uncanny Welles impersonation—he gets the young Welles’ amused imperiousness exactly right, both in the timbre of his voice and in that single cocked eyebrow. Every time McKay leaves the screen, the movie immediately wilts. Orson Welles and who?
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Curiously inert but for the excellent (and accurately stagy) impersonation of Orson Welles by British stage actor Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles is one Richard Linklater movie we can’t love unconditionally.
We don’t even love it conditionally, though it does serve to demonstrate that, like Stephen Soderbergh, Linklater is an excellent technical director who can seemingly divorce himself entirely from any subjective notion of style. Me and Orson Welles is such a well-realized, neutral production that we can almost believe the lack of chemistry between ingenue Zac Efron and the often delightful Claire Danes is some kind of artistic choice.
Oh well, the point is to hear and watch McKay-as-Welles bluster and fret and fill up the frame with his immense, unavoidable theatricality. You’ll probably walk away from this movie impressed by his plummy performance, and unsure of what else went on.
Well, it’s ostensibly a coming-of-age story about an aspiring teenage thespian (Efron) who gets a small part in Welles’ historical 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar (which had the actors affecting black uniforms that evoked European fascists rather than to gas). For his trouble, he gets to be bullied by Welles, rub shoulders with actors like Joseph Cotten, be advised by producer John Houseman and have his heart busted by the ambitious office manager (Danes).
No doubt there’s something to be made of Welles’ undeniably important staging of Caesar, but the inherent cuteness of a script derived from a young adult novel is a dubious way to approach it. (For a better strategy, see Tim Robbins’ somewhat politically overbearing but still excellent 1999 film The Cradle Will Rock which was built around the Mercury Theater’s other 1937 production.)
Still, give Efron credit for at least trying to run with the big boys. And Linklater a pass for making what for him is a runof-the-mill movie. And McKay an Oscar nomination.
Few American dramatists ever towered over the worlds of stage, screen and the airwaves like Orson Welles. Though he's remembered by many for his later career difficulties and financial woes, Welles' twenties included an astonishing five-year run comprising the landmark stage production "Voodoo Macbeth," the infamous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast and "Citizen Kane," a film commonly argued to be the greatest ever made. The new film "Me and Orson Welles" revisits the heady days when Welles was part "boy genius," part "enfant terrible."
Based on Robert Kaplow's novel, "Me and Orson Welles" transports the audience to 1937 New York, where the larger-than-life director is staging his adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Ostensibly the story belongs to the "Me" in the title: a 17-year-old aspiring Bohemian named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron). In a moment of whimsy, Welles hires Richard off the street to play the small part of Lucius, and thus begins a whirlwind week in which the teen will live and learn from a legend while experiencing the first blush of love. Though he's sarcastically warned, "You're not getting anything but the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit," Richard has a ringside seat to history and a chance to discover himself in the process.
While watching the mercurial Welles storm around his Mercury Theatre, Richard befriends soon-to-be-famous actors Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). Like every other man in the company, Richard is taken with production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a conspicuously smart and ambitious woman who sees her current job as a stepping stone to another with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Almost entirely unconscious of anyone's needs but his own, Welles keeps his cast and crew on call 'round the clock, though he frequently disappears for extramarital quickies or to perform one of the radio shows that pays the bills (the re-creation of a CBS radio broadcast is one of the film's many comic highlights).
Welles fans will be beside themselves enjoying the esoteric detail captured by screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., associates of director Richard Linklater. Down the line, Linklater has enlisted the right people for the jobs: the charming Efron to reach (and educate) an audience that's never heard of Orson Welles, or never cared; production designer Laurence Dorman to craft the ingenious period recreations of New York City and cinematographer Dick Pope ("Topsy-Turvy") to shoot them; and above all, Christian McKay to do the impossible: convince us that this is Orson Welles.
McKay first played Welles in the celebrated one-man show "Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles." His prodigious talent and shrewd judgment of character take him well beyond impersonation to capture Welles' essence as a gifted artist and a gifted bluffer, a master manipulator and magician. Without McKay, "Me and Orson Welles" would be unthinkable as a film; with him, Linklater's delightful celebration of the arts turns out to be one of the season's most surprising gifts.
My favorite moment in Richard Linklater's irresistible "Me and Orson Welles" comes at the end. It's set in 1937 and Welles has just had the triumph of his young life (he was only 22 at the time) with his modern dress Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
As the opening night crowd cheers wildly at what would have been the final curtain (the theater, famously, had none), Welles backstage says in wonderment at the ovation "How the hell do I top this?"
What we know, of course, that no one playing members of his Mercury Theater knew, is that a mere four years later, his film "Citizen Kane" would top everything and spend the next 70 years atop everyone's list of the greatest films made in the sound era.
The actor so unexpectedly fine in the fearsome role of Welles is Brit Christian McKay, who was 36 — a full 14 years older than Welles in 1937 — when this film was made. The very idea of an actor playing Welles at the exact moment of his life when he was an inflammatory fireball of flamboyance, flippancy and pure ego is, to understate more than a little, daunting.
McKay, bless him, carries it off with his Wellesian moon face and vocal cords that are at least in some plausible neighborhood of Welles' Voice of God. (In real life, no doubt, when an offended Welles roared "I am Orson Welles!" at his stock company to close an argument, he probably sounded as if he were yelling "I am the Lord God JEHOVAH!")
It is McKay as Welles who makes "Me and Orson Welles" such good fun … he and the story of the Welles production that was destined to come together in theatrical immortality. To us now, the idea of dressing Julius Caesar's assassins in Fascist uniforms is more than a little obvious, but in 1937, with Hitler's shadow darkening Europe, it must have been electrifying.
It's the delightful backstage sass and savvy that's so charming about "Me and Orson Welles." The "Me" of the title is Zac Efron as the young high school student who plays hooky from school to be Lucius in Welles' production. He's not being paid, says one of the Mercury players, he's just doing it "for the opportunity of being sprayed by Orson's spit" (and, sure enough, when we actually see opening night, Welles, in the grand declamatory theatrical tradition, is a Niagara of spittle when seen by appropriately illuminating stage lights).
The film was written with verve by Holly Gent Palmo. Of one dismissed cast member, it's said "he had a personality problem with Orson." "Meaning .‚.‚.? asks another. "He had a personality."
It's great fun to hear McKay as Welles trash John Gielgud's "drawing room Shakespeare" that makes Welles' "blood boil." And just as much fun to follow the actors playing Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), especially the latter who, as this film has it, was the company hound dog, scoring with "every broad in the Manhattan phone book."
What is, alas, not quite as much fun about "Me and Orson Welles" is all the stuff about Love Among the Ingenues … young Efron as the high school prodigy and Claire Danes as Welles' ambitious, well-connected, name-dropping young secretary. It's there where the young boy learns a thing or two about sex and life that are painful to know and not entirely edifying to follow (though they do answer the question of how this movie came to be made by the fellow who once directed "Dazed and Confused").
No matter. It's Welles who snags and keeps your attention — megalomaniac, con man, thieving magpie with no principles about whom he steals from, autocratic ruler of a society of brilliant talents in desperate need of cohesion and direction. (Said Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in his old age: "God, how they'll love me when I'm gone.")
Talk about tough roles.‚.‚.
That Christian McKay even comes close is a triumph Welles himself would, no doubt, have been the first to appreciate.
Me and Orson Welles is worth seeing, but only just. It's a prime example of a movie which fails to live up to its intriguing premise but contains one great performance which compensates for its many other irritating features.
The performer who carries the day is Christian McKay, a British actor who honed his portrayal of Orson Welles while touring with the one man stage show Rosebud. The resemblance is uncanny: Not only does McKay look like Welles, he captures the attitude and ego of the man as well and the film is never dull when he's on camera.
Unfortunately, Me and Orson Welles is built around the story of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, demonstrating his continuing inability to do anything more than pose and look cute) who lucks into a small part in the Mercury Theatre's production of Julius Caesar. In the magical way of Hollywood wish fulfillment movies, Samuels convinces his mother that high school is unimportant, masters not only his lines but the art of the ukulele as well, gets it on with the company's attractive secretary (Claire Danes, who is quite good in a limited role), experiences the euphoria of performing in a widely acclaimed theater production, and even has a cutie-pie girlfriend (Zoe Kazan, Elia's granddaughter) in reserve which gives him something to fall back on when his Mercury adventure crashes to earth.
Director Richard Linklater seems unsure about what he wants to accomplish with this film and the script, adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. from a novel by Robert Kaplow, doesn't do him any favors. It never settles on a consistent tone, requiring too many leaps of faith to convince as naturalistic drama while remaining insufficiently captivating to succeed as magical realism. There's nothing interesting about Efron's character which means that a film built around him can't hold our attention for long, with the possible exception of a certain audience demographic who still thinks he's dreamy.
Lacking an interesting story to tell, the film falls back on that favorite of lazy writers everywhere: namedropping. It's a good strategy, because a certain percentage of the audience for this type of film will be so busy congratulating themselves on recognizing the names of people like John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotton (James Tupper, who looks uncannily like the actor and succeeds the best in bringing his role to life) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) that they won't care that little is done to develop these historical figures as characters within the film.
Another appeal of Me and Orson Welles is that it is structured around a significant historical event: the 1937 Mercury production of Julius Caesar which portrayed the plotters as blackshirted Fascists, a particularly resonant choice given the contemporary situation in Europe. There's some fun as well for lovers of that old warhorse the backstage drama, although you have to overlook the script's propensity to rely on stock conflicts and reduce all its characters to types.
Me and Orson Welles was shot primarily on the Isle of Man and at Pinewood Studios, and the film exudes an oddly sumptuous yet synthetic feel rather than convincing us that it's taking place in a gritty New York of 1937. So not only does the story not ring true, the film doesn't even look real. Me and Orson Welles is a disappointing take on a fascinating premise which is leavened by one overpowering performance and a few ancillary pleasures.
Smooth, peppy, and light on its feet, Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is as enjoyable a fictional, comedic tale about working with Mr. Welles could be. It isn't particularly weighty or contemplative, and it doesn't stay with you long after having viewed it, but it moves along nicely and wraps itself up into a tight, faux historical package. The story at hand, although not concerned with real events (at least not as they actually occurred), takes place in late 1930s New York City, Broadway to be exact, where Orson Welles is preparing to mount a new production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Welles' participation in stage work has always been well documented (as has this production), and in using a familiar and truthful historical backdrop, Linklater gets to be the second director this year after Quentin Tarantino to rewrite history for the sake of the cinema. As portrayed in the film by Christian McKay, Mr. Welles was quite an inglorious bastard himself, and what we get is an outsider's view of this larger than life, extremely intelligent and self aware thespian and showman. Like Bullets Over Broadway and the play, Noises Off, Linklater takes the “let's put on a show/all aboard the sinking ship” approach, and the movie transpires into a fun, wacky hoopla with enough backstage drama to please even the Schuberts and the Belascos.
The plot is what Me and Orson Welles is most chiefly concerned with, so let's trudge right along through it. Teen pop sensation Zac Efron plays Richard, a seventeen year old high school student who really wants to become a professional New York actor. He travels frequently into Manhattan, and one day, quite out of the blue — or thanks to fate, as so many actors seem to believe — he offers to try his hand at the drums for a theater group arguing outside of the Mercury Theater. Orson comes out and sees him, is impressed, offers him a small role in Caesar, and good golly gee whiz, our budding Brando has witnessed his dream come true. As rehearsals begin, we will get to know Welles the actor, as well as Welles the director, Welles the dictator, Welles the womanizer, and Welles the backstabber. Musical beds is a game that most theater companies resort to playing sooner rather than later, and Orson is a gosh darn Grandslam champion. The theater is a cutthroat business.
So, as things usually go, the performers are afraid they won't be ready for opening night, and everything seems to indicate they won't be. People are mad about the size of their roles, the lighting on their faces, the memorization of their lines, etc. The theater even winds up flooding, but that has more to do with an action by our leading man than by bad luck. Still, superstition is an able thing in the theater world, and Orson is happy to see everything go wrong, that is, up to a point. God forbid someone try to damper his sex life. Unlike a boxer before a fight, the more sex you can get before opening night, the better the overall production.
Speaking of a certain Rosebud, Sonja (Claire Danes) plays the romantic interest to both Richard and Orson, and that will lead us down many a dark paths; she is a star-screwer, one who can't wait to work her magic on David O. Selznick, a big time producer who has been thinking of turning Gone With The Wind into a major motion picture. Like all old fashioned, a star is born (or almost born) studio pictures from the flapper and post flapper period, it all comes down to a blond ingenue. Beauty always kills the beast. And thus, the film will end much the same way it started, with an out of work young actor hoping to reach the big time. At the end, he will be a little wiser, a little less jaded, but the story will ultimately be rendered inconsequential. It's one half of a really good double bill.
In terms of Linklater's other films, this one is sweetly nostaglic and less culturally relevant and concerned with Generation X than say a Before Sunrise or Tape. The characters do not seem to be people Linklater knows, but character types he learned from watching old movies; at the end, you almost instinctively expect Robert Osbourne to appear on screen asking what you thought. It's a glorified and romanticized view — even when Orson gets to play mean and heartless, there's a gentleman like quality circling his approach. When things don't work out as well we would have hoped for Richard, there's no real harm done. He has walked away with experience and life lessons that will last him a lifetime. Cue outro music and obligatory newsreels.
Linklater allows us to be a fly on the wall in some scenes, my favorite involving Welles performing a live radio play to remarkable artistic results. Acting up a storm, improvising his lines, and upstaging all of his fellow actors, Welles is shown as a somewhat pompous force to be reckoned with, and it allows us to appreciate the man as well as McKay's performance embodying him. The scene also gets the details right. The actors stand in a circle, ferociously flipping through the pages of their script looking for their next line, as creative performers work on the side creating a vast array of sound effects to be used diegetically within the scene. This hustle and bustle sense of frantic professionalism gave me a greater appreciation for these weekly radio plays, and I find myself now having a greater interest in the craft. Oh, and the scene which precedes this one, involving Welles reading aloud from Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, is a real winner too. A little foreshadowing isn't always a bad thing.
My main complaint with the film reside in its familiarity. When a story is done well, its cliches shouldn't matter (or the technique can transcend the material), and while this one is done well, Linklater isn't really breaking new ground here. Maybe that's the point. By paying your respects to the movies and moviemakers of yesteryear, perhaps your goal is to stay in tune with their styles and forms of narrative storytelling. This is a respectful directorial job from Linklater, capturing an era without necessarily becoming one. It lacks a distinctive voice while hearkening back to so many others. One interesting thing of note is the casting of Zoe Kazan in a bit part as a potential love interest to Richard. Ms. Kazan is of course the granddaughter of the famous Elia, the film and stage director who had been directing plays on Broadway around the same time as Orson, so there's a nice link/nod to history there. Multiple Brooks Atkinson references round out the period.
In a large ensemble piece such as this, all of the actors playing the important, some famous and some not so famous theatrical figures, must look and sound the part (debatable, I realize), while running the risk of being accused of meager impersonations. The most scrutinized part was always going to be that of Orson Welles, and McKay gets all of the cadences exactly right. He is playing Orson Welles the “character” and not Orson the “personal man” (a distinction worth noting), and he is very comedic and strict in the way his Welles directs and argues with actors. And as our two leads, Richard and Sonja, Efron and Danes are serviceable, but it must be noted that these are not very challenging parts. They are reactionary roles to Welles, and Efron and Danes do their jobs admirably. There are no small parts, only small actors.
Me and Orson Welles is an enjoyable little movie that is, in film geek speak, middle of the road Linklater. That's good enough for me, and you may enjoy it too. I suspect most people who seek this film out will be the types interested in film history and/or Mr. Welles, and this film, while not always true to the facts, is a "what if" scenario done well. It's a comforting old romp that's sure to be Peter Bogdonovich's favorite (or least favorite) movie of the year. We need another someone like Orson Welles, and this movie is a friendly reminder. Long before we were an America known as a fast food nation, we were arts-savy and respected the greats. This film revels in one of them.
In 1937, actor-director-impresario Orson Welles and his partner John Houseman found themselves frozen out of the Federal Theatre project, funded by the Roosevelt administration’s Works Projects Administration, when they defied their federal sponsor by going through with a production of Mark Blickstein’s musical labor drama Cradle Will Rock. Various conservative members of Congress yielded to the demands of executives from the steel industry, who were portrayed unfavorably in the work, and cut off funding. Welles and Houseman then founded the Mercury Theatre in New York and made plans for a modern-dress, fascist-themed production of Julius Caesar.
In Me and Orson Welles, 17-going-on-18-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) virtually wanders in off a Manhattan street to become a minor member of the cast, picked in part because Welles (Christian McKay) likes the kid’s moxie. And so begins a quick education in life and art. Richard learns that theater folk can be kind and dedicated as well as egoistically cruel and ruthless.
Richard Linklater’s (Slackers) movie is mostly pretty mild if generally pleasant coming-of-age stuff, but it’s noteworthy for two things: Christian McKay’s remarkable, compelling and utterly convincing performance as the titanically self-motivated, self-mythologizing legend of theater and movies, and for the interesting contribution it makes to the long-running debate about Welles. The movie depicts him as something like the enormously gifted creative force he imagined himself to be, but also as a man who could brook no arguments and barely tolerated anyone else’s claims to credit. (Cineastes will probably recognize that this bears on the bitter argument the late Pauline Kael started when she wrote that Welles tried to deny writer Herman Manciewicz his share of the glory for Citizen Kane.)
Efron, until recently the toothsome dream princeling of millions of tween girls, isn’t an arresting screen presence yet, but he has charm and he shows signs he could become a real actor.
Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles may be a change of pace for the indie wunderkind, but for anyone else, it’s a fairly familiar coming-of-age tale, as scrappy teen Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) spends a wondrous week in and around the Mercury Theatre as they put on Welles’ radical production of Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar."
Efron flirts around with the likes of Zoe Kazan and Claire Danes, not worried about school and not worried about by family, and despite all of the charisma that he brought to 17 Again earlier this year and despite all of the costuming that Linklater sticks him in, he sticks out like a sore thumb in 1937 Manhattan. His antics are inoffensive enough, but his lead’s not much to root for when he lands a part in the play and “the opportunity to be showered with Orson’s spit.”
While it may not matter whether or not our protagonist keeps the part, let alone gets it, it puts him inside the Mercury, where things pick up as the traditions and superstitions of the stage unfold, demonstrating all of the cooperation and compromise that comes with putting on a production. And things take off once our Welles (Christian McKay) takes center stage. He’s a cigar-puffing, scenery-gnawing visionary, one cocky enough to have the vision and charming enough to have others bring it to life for him.
McKay doesn’t just look and sound the part. His performance is all ego and gruff, a menace to most and lover to a few. His pride only drops when an actor breaks down on him, at which point he’ll feed their ego so long as it gets them and thereby the show – HIS show – through to opening night. It doesn’t matter that Efron stands in his shadow, or that their equal fondness for Danes’ character will lead to inevitable conflict; Welles more than makes up for the plodding antics off the stage.
It’s hard to see much thematic resonance on Linklater’s part, save for a scene where Welles brings Samuels along for a radio play, and Efron marvels at the behind-the-scenes workings of radio as we’re led to for theater, at the forming of something out of nothing, the birth of a creative endeavor to share with an audience and leave them to cherish.
But there’s precious little of that there, and more of the title’s Me making his way around the big wigs and making the most of his experience. There’s nothing actively unpleasant about how 'Me and Orson Welles' plays out, but chances are that you, like everyone else, will spend most of the time waiting for Orson.
We Are Movie Geeks
Orson Welles will probably forever be considered one, if not the best directors to ever live. His CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS are considered to be two of the greatest films ever made. Not only was he an amazing director, but also an accomplished actor and in theater, film and radio. ME AND ORSON WELLES picks him up as he forms the Mercury theater and the longest running Broadway version of CAESAR.
I was initially turned off by this film simply because it starred Zac Efron and an unknown Christian McKay who is portraying Welles. After watching the trailer I figured I would set aside all of my negativity towards Mr High School Musical and go in with an open mind… not to mention I used to have a mad crush on Claire Danes. I came out with a huge smile on my face and a feeling of disappointment that I havent seen everything Orson Welles has ever produced, acted, directed, wrote or even touched.
The year is 1937, Orson Welles has recently formed the Mercury Theater and is in midst of CAESAR, which is the first Broadway Shakespearean production. Welles is set to portray Brutus, and is in need of a new Lucius. When he comes outside to see Richard Samuels(Efron)
With no previous acting experience, and being the ripe young age of 17, he takes to Sonja Jones(Danes) who manages the Mercury theater. Being young he instantly becomes smitten with her and decides to do everything in his power to win her heart. Unfortunately for him, Sonja is more interested in making her career successful than to shack up with an underage guy with his head in the clouds.
Welles takes to Richard almost immediately and starts to take him under his wing. Slowly Richard realizes that Orson’s main concern is proving people of his genius and nothing will get in the way of that. When he challenges for the love of “his girl” Welles lashes out at him and puts him in his place. Richard is heartbroken when he realizes that all of the things Welles has told him is just bullshit that he unloads on all of his underlings.
Without going too much further into the plot I will stop with that and let you all go out and see the movie for yourself and make your own judgments. I will tell you that Zac Efron is capable of acting, and Claire Danes is as beautiful and charming as ever. The thing you will be thinking about for days after seeing this film is how absolutely amazing Christian McKay is in the film. Not only does he portray Orson Welles with what seems like great ease, but at times you actually feel like you are watching the real Orson Welles playing himself. His performance is awe inspiring and if he doesnt receive an Oscar Nomination than I have lost all faith in the Academy.
Richard Linklater had done an amazing job of bringing out amazing performances from everyone involved, and telling a story that will blow you away. I am in love with this film and hope that you all make it out to see the film when it hits a theater near you.
4.5 out of 5
And now I'm going to be really lazy. Since at this point we know what most of these say (on average anyway), I'm just going copy and paste links for the blog reviews of MAOW.
Links to Blogs
Movie Day at the Court
Warwick Film Studies Society
Cut Out and Keep
Living Las Vegas
According to Colwell
Dr. John's Journal
What Pete's Watching
Felipa on Flicks
Antagony and Ecstasy
Killer Movie Reviews
No Ordinary Fool
Splatter's Film Blog
Book Talk and More
Blog, rant, bitch, blather, gripe, and moan
Bill's Movie Reviews
The Frugal Chariot
Bumbling around Birmingham
Tea to Pour
Pancakes in the Age of Enlightenment
Pop Culture Guy
Kino in Purgatory
The Chronic Critic
The Implied Observer