Those thinking Zac Efron will be mired in the sludge of ’tween idol for the rest of his career should check out “Me and Orson Welles.” The kid can act, perhaps once and for all escaping the “High School Musical” franchise.
Efron has the good fortune here of direction from Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” “Fast Food Nation”) and a deft script adapted from Robert Kaplow’s novel in this ringing tribute to Welles as master thespian.
It’s 1937 in New York City, where Orson Welles is casting his production of “Julius Caesar.” Trying desperately to escape his own scholastic conformity, a lad named Richard Samuels (Efron) lands the role of Lucius.
Samuels promptly falls hard for Sonja Jones (a completely believable Claire Danes), Welles’s secretary and sometime paramour, with the sexual awakening causing a rift between Samuels and Welles, his idol.
As good as Efron is, fans of Welles should see this film for Christian McKay’s studied portrayal, practically channeling the star in physicality and vocal delivery. McKay is brilliant as the blustering, egotistical and utterly brilliant Welles at the height of his creative genius — before Hollywood grabbed hold of him and “Citizen Kane” became his artistic albatross.
Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
My favorite holiday meal is ham, not turkey.
That might be why I find "Me and Orson Welles" so appetizing.
The larger-than-life personality of Welles, a Kenosha native, is well captured in this nimble period piece and coming-of-age story by Richard Linklater, director of "School of Rock." Christian McKay plays Welles in 1937, as he prepares his revolutionary staging of "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theater.
"How the hell can I top this?" he wonders while mounting the play.
Zac Efron is a high school student by day who has a bit part in the play by night and through whose eyes the story is told. Claire Danes is the stage manager whose attentions both men vie for.
She may encourage the affections of Efron, but she is a practical and ambitious girl, and the married, philandering and volatile Welles is a paycheck she cannot alienate.
McKay was discovered in a one-man production playing Welles, and he captures the brilliant, self-centered genius at the peak of his powers and looks a bit like him, too. McKay's performance has been included in several best-of-year lists.
The film, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, also portrays Welles as a man for whom performance provided a defense mechanism.
"Because if people can't find you," he says, "they can't dislike you."
Male ingénue Efron, star of the "High School Musical" films, gives a surprisingly mature performance that could mark a new direction in his career.
But it is the backstage portrait of the theater world and Welles' place in it - one year from his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast - that captures the imagination, as he flatters investors, acts in radio plays without rehearsal, seduces women and mounts a modern-dress staging of Shakespeare as fascist allegory.
And it is fun to spot actors portraying famous Mercury Theater players - James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd and Eddie Marsan as John Houseman - some of whom would follow Welles to Hollywood when he filmed "Citizen Kane."
That's how he topped it.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
In a world where money didn't matter, the names "Orson Welles" and "Zac Efron" would only be spoken in the same sentence if it were a punch line. But teen-idol Efron is a hot commodity with an itch to do serious work, and his participation was probably instrumental in making the theatrical coming-of-age story "Me and Orson Welles" a viable investment.
Co-starring an amazing British mimic named Christian McKay as the young impresario Welles and affectionately directed by the versatile Richard Linklater ("School of Rock"), it's an education in constructing art. Lesson 1: Don't try to make an actor out of Efron before his time.
In this case, the time is 1937, which Linklater evokes with swing music and meticulously re-created details. Twinkle-toed teenager Richard Samuels (Efron) takes a bus to Times Square from the New York suburbs and immediately bluffs his way into a role in "Julius Caesar."
The director is Welles, the blustering boy wonder who is pouring his radio-show earnings into an avant-garde theater troupe, which is updating the Shakespeare play into a critique of fascism. The Mercury Theatre is a bootstrap enterprise with underpaid acolytes who will someday become famous, including rogue Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and flustered supervisor John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
Richard is so smitten by winsome assistant Sonja (Claire Danes, reliably fine) that he doesn't realize she's out of his league. Beguiled by first love and the footlights, Richard gets lessons in seduction and stagecraft.
The most resonant voice belongs to Welles, or rather to McKay, who uncannily channels the charm, ego and flim-flammery of the man who would soon move to Hollywood to direct and star in "Citizen Kane." Like Welles, this British actor may be on the cusp of a great career.
The same can't be said for Efron. The heartthrob never believably evokes the passion of an aspiring artist. The difference between McKay and Efron is like the difference between a Broadway spectacular and a high school musical.
Richard Linklater's eclectic career (Slacker, School of Rock, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly) takes another unusual turn with Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. The story takes the tack of inventing a fictional witness to an event of great historical significance ,and here, the event in question is a 1937 Broadway staging of Julius Caesar. It was the inaugural production of the Mercury Theater Company, and it was to be a triumph for its boy genius-in-residence, 22-year-old Orson Welles.
It's hard to exaggerate the impact and astonishingly quick rise of the man: Welles had already attracted notice for his ongoing radio role as the Shadow, as well as for his all-black Harlem production of Macbeth and an abortive launch of Marc Blitzstein's rabble-rousing opera, The Cradle Will Rock. He'd done all that while others his age were getting drunk at fraternity keggers, and he still was a year or two away from the true notoriety that would come with The War of the Worlds and then Citizen Kane.
The temptation to dramatize the events and culture of those days is enormous: There was jazz on the radio, DiMaggio at the ballpark and Bogart on the screens. The artistic personalities were larger than life, as were the real-life villains and ideological movements. Indeed, Linklater's film is at its best in its re-creation of the conditions under which the production was created. Our nominal hero, Richard (Zac Efron), is a high school kid with showbiz dreams. Wandering into the theater district from his suburban home, he stumbles upon a typically chaotic day at the Mercury Theater, newly ensconced in a crumbling building on 41st Street. He hustles his way into the company (it's easy to get involved with a show if you don't mind not being paid) and ends up with a bit part, thanks to his musical competence. We learn, courtesy of Welles' partner John Houseman (Mike Leigh regular Eddie Marsan), that the show is scheduled to open in a week, and that it's presently in utter shambles. Through Richard's eyes, we watch the terrible and mighty Welles miraculously pull the show together through a combination of genius, chutzpah, bullying and gamesmanship.
It's an action-packed week—and movie—for Richard as he simultaneously pursues a romance with Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater's ambitious office manager while continuing to attend his classes back home. Although Danes is as lovely as ever, and no stranger to Elizabethan-era films (she was Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo and foil to Billy Crudup's transvestite actress in Stage Beauty), there's no edge to her character. She's too nice. Efron, on the other hand, seems to have an instinctive handle on his character's opportunistic moxie, but the script ultimately, and unconvincingly, requires him to end up on the right side of virtue, rejecting the scheming, backstabbing and strategic sexual activity that the film assures us is the true key to success. It's also a little disappointing that the film doesn't exploit Efron's well-documented song-and-dance skills.
Playing Orson Welles convincingly in a film has become something of an actor's Mount Everest: Vincent D'Onofrio did it most memorably in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and Angus MacFadyen played the whiz kid in Tim Robbins' The Cradle Will Rock. Here, Linklater turns to an unknown actor, Christian McKay, who indeed bears an uncanny resemblance to the genuine article. His voice isn't as resonant, of course, but my main complaint about the presentation is that his Welles isn't awe-inspiring enough. While it's understandable that Linklater and the screenwriters would want to humanize him, we don't get the sense of Welles' extraordinary dimensions. Yes, the film is probably correct to note that Welles' M.O. involved a considerable amount of bluffing and posturing, but as presented here it's far too genial. There's never any real menace and only a hint of his largeness, his ability to terrify and inspire. It takes an incredible personality to hold an embattled, cash-strapped theatrical production together, and we just don't feel the high stakes surrounding the show.
The film is most successful in its re-creation of the Caesar production, radical for its time in placing the action in the present, with the forces of the Roman establishment becoming jack-booted fascists. A theater on the Isle of Man substitutes for the long-vanished Manhattan building, and Linklater and his design team lavish attention upon such production details as the trapdoors that were employed to great success, the shafts of light that provided stark illumination for the unadorned stage, the struggles with the cues for Marc Blitzstein's score and the evolution of the staging of the death of Cinna the poet, which would become the show's coup de théâtre.
Me and Orson Welles doesn't quite capture the conscience of the boy wonder, but it does succeed when it lets the play become the thing.
Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles might be the least Wellesian film ever made about the great director. That's probably a good thing: Nobody wants to see Linklater, a filmmaker most at home amid the messy back-and-forth of human relationships, try his hand at bending cinematic space or fracturing and reinventing cultural mythology. Still, his latest lives strangely between the winds—it pays skin-deep homage to the larger-than-life theatrical figure at its center, yet it only dips a reluctant toe into the muck of desire and disillusion that marks Linklater's best films. Content to function mostly as an affable nostalgia piece, it's entertaining and engaging—and maybe that's enough.
The "Me" of the film's title is an impressionable high schooler by the name of Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron) who finagles his way into a bit part in the Mercury Theater's legendary modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. The year is 1937; Europe is getting ready to blow itself to pieces, and Welles' decision to set Shakespeare's play in a Fascist dictatorship is about to set the American stage aflame.
The Mercury is, of course, a legend in both theater, film and radio history: It's where Welles turned himself into a household name (it was for an episode of The Mercury Theater on the Air that he did his famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast) and from where he drew such notable collaborators as actors Joseph Cotten and George Coulouris, as well as producer John Houseman. You wouldn't exactly guess any of this, though, from Linklater's film. Sure, the gang's all here, with Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan doing notably fine jobs as Coulouris and Houseman respectively, and the film certainly acknowledges the fact that this production represents something special for the theater. But it might as well be Oklahoma! they're staging.
Oh yeah, there's a guy playing Welles too. His name is Christian McKay and he's quite, well, amazing—his performance stands somewhere between expert impersonation and full-on reanimation. He does justice to the great man's mercurial personality, including his occasional bouts of pointed hysteria. (Was Welles as comically shifty-eyed as McKay sometimes makes him? Who cares?) But Linklater doesn't give this Welles much of a character arc, even though he pretty much hands the entire movie over to him. Similarly, you'd think Efron, being the film's nominal lead, would have a lot to do, but his job seems mostly to be young, earnest and beautiful. (One should note that he handles himself commendably.)
The film is all sweetness and light, a nostalgia piece about the theater that rarely strays into darker territories. Should it have? We get one dutiful hint that Welles' career will eventually spin out of control: Stuck in a car with Richard, he reads a passage from Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons and reflects that it's all about "how everything gets taken away from you." Should more have been made of the fact that Welles, only 22 when he staged Caesar, was basically a kid himself? (McKay, by the way, is 36.) And when, as it must to all men, the requisite disillusion comes to Richard, the film still doesn't lose its bouncy step. Again, though, is that such a bad thing? It's hard not to like Me and Orson Welles. But it's also easy to forget all about it.
No one could be more surprised than I am that I would love a Richard Linklater movie, but it’s true: I love Me and Orson Welles. It’s a film that proves other startling things—like the fact that Zac Efron can act and Ben Chaplin can be interesting. It also introduces us to an unknown Brit actor named Christian McKay, whose portrayal of the young Orson Welles is downright uncanny. Beyond that, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the theater, about being young and in love with art, about the first disillusionment with art, and about the ability to bounce back from that disillusionment. It helps immensely that the film is also just plain entertaining. I watched it late on a Saturday night, got up on Sunday and watched it again.
The story concerns a high-school kid, Richard Samuels (Efron), who is immediately established as being interested in the arts. He bumps into a girl, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, Revolutionary Road), playing Gershwin in a music store and bemoaning the death of the composer. This leads to a discussion of Gershwin and Richard Rodgers—complete with youthful overstatement (Gretta claims she’d give anything to have written the first five notes of “There’s a Small Hotel”)—and further revelations about each one’s creative dreams. (Justin Souther pointed out to me that this scene is one that keeps the film from feeling like a standard period piece, noting that two kids discussing Gershwin and Rodgers in contemporary terms translates perfectly into something modern by simply changing musicians.)
Sooner than Richard could possibly imagine, the opportunity for a full immersion into the creative world of the theater drops into his lap—and not just any theater, but Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and Welles’ version of Julius Caesar, with the play presented as a contemporary story of fascist Italy. He lands a (non-paying) role in the production by being able to play a drum roll (to herald the great man’s arrival) and on sheer moxie—the latter especially appealing to Welles. In no time, Richard is thrust into the storm that constantly surrounds Welles and any Wellesian undertaking. Everything appears to be chaos dictated by Welles and his egocentric desires.
Much happens—including a romance with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the woman who keeps the madness as in check as it can possibly be—and all of it is geared, one way or another, to the world of the theater and the realization of Welles’ vision. The more familiar you are with Welles and his company, the more certain aspects will mean. So many people central to Welles’ career are there—Joseph Cotten (TV actor James Tupper), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky), George Colouris (Ben Chaplin), Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill, Kinky Boots)—and recognizing that adds to the film’s resonance, but it’s by no means a requisite for following it.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film lies in the glimpses we see of the opening-night performance of Julius Caesar. Not only does Linklater capture the excitement of the event, but he does so in a way that justifies Welles’ ego, arrogance and apparent disorganization. He creates something truly rare—a play depicted on film in such a way that you really wish you could have been there to see it.
On its simplest level, Me and Orson Welles can be taken as a coming-of-age story, but in its way, it’s two coming-of-age stories—Richard’s passage to adulthood and Welles coming into his full-blown genius. Both levels have their share of joy and sorrow—and, if it comes to that, of two studies in self-promotion and the promise of self-induced downfalls. There’s a great deal more going on here than may be apparent on the surface.
The film’s attention to period detail feels effortless and authentic. I only caught one small instance of cheating where the popular music track was concerned: the use of the 1938 Benny Goodman recording “Swing, Swing, Swing” in 1937. That it comes across so smoothly is all the more remarkable when you realize that much of the film was shot on the Isle of Man where the Gaeity Theatre offered the closest approximation of the long-demolished Mercury.
There’s very little to fault here and much to praise, but most especially there’s Christian McKay’s Orson Welles. If nothing else about the film had worked, his portrayal—embodiment really—of Welles would make the film worth seeing. He is truly astonishing, but in many ways so is the whole film.
Zac Efron is the supposed "draw" for the show-business comedy "Me and Orson Welles."
And make no mistake, the movie offers another credible big-screen role for the "High School Musical" star, and he acquits himself nicely.
But the real reason to see the film is British television actor Christian McKay, who plays Orson Welles. His is a nearly pitch-perfect imitation of the recognizable, multitalented actor and filmmaker, circa the late-1930s.
But it's not just a rote, one-note impersonation of Welles. McKay's blustery but believable performance is one of the more memorable supporting turns in any film this year.
As for Efron, he stars as Richard Samuels, who has lucked into the opportunity of a lifetime.
The theatrically talented teen encounters Welles and his troupe of Mercury Theatre company actors on the street. Richard's moxie impresses Welles, who offers him a small role — that of Lucius, the servant of Brutus — in the company's production of "Julius Caesar."
He receives a quick education in professional theater and is warned not to cross the sometimes testy Welles.
Richard has also become smitten with the troupe's production assistant, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
Story continues below
Director Richard Linklater ("Fast Food Nation") is smart enough to keep the tone light and to keep the whole thing moving at a brisk pace.
You do wish he and the screenwriters would have given more time to a subplot about Richard's burgeoning relationship with a would-be writer, played by Zoe Kazan. It's more convincing than the Efron-Danes pairing.
And contrast that with a few go-nowhere bits about the various behind-the-scenes squabbles. Leo Bills is irritating as the supposed comic relief of the Mercury Theatre troupe.
Still, the stars are good, and it is a fun, if slightly unoriginal, plot.
Kansas City Tribune
Filmmaker Richard Linklater continues to surprise.
Who would have thought that the cheeky director behind “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker” could have created such a satisfying period piece as “Me and Orson Wells.”
This fictionalized story is set amidst the real life chaos that surrounded Wells’ legendary New York production of “Julius Caesar” in 1937.
Wells was, of course, something of a tragic figure, a theatrical genius with a colossal ego who peaked as a youth and spent the rest of his life futilely trying to live up to his early promise.
To paraphrase an old joke, as an actor and director, nobody could touch Wells. As a human being, no one wanted to.
Zac Efron (“High School Musical”) leads the cast as 17-year-old high school student Richard Samuels. A wannabe actor, Richard finds himself in the right place at the right time and manages to secure a small walk-on part in the production.
The naïve lad soon learns a lot about the turbulent and somewhat amoral world of the New York theatre.
Claire Danes (“Stardust”) plays Sonja Jones, Wells’ assistant with whom Richard becomes emotionally entangled. Fiercely ambitious, Sonja is more interested in meeting movie producer David O. Selznik than continuing an affair with a love-addled high school kid.
But the performance that fuels “Me and Orson Wells” is that of British actor Christian McKay (“Abraham’s Point”). He doesn’t simply do a spot-on impersonation of Wells; he seems to have channeled his very spirit.
McKay is utterly convincing as the self-centered (but obviously insecure) actor/director who was so fiercely passionate about his art. He makes it quite clear why his fellow artists stuck with him in spite of his raging ego and unpredictable behavior.
The movie hits its stride when the tensions between Wells, Sonja and Richard begin to erupt.
Danes brings an essential likeability to her somewhat unsympathetic role and Efron is surprisingly good as the kid who makes the mistake of standing up to the tempestuous Wells.
The supporting players make a mark, too. There are impressive turns by Eddie Marsden as John Houseman, James Tupper as Joseph Cotton, Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris and Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd.
The production values are sharp. Linklater and his creative staff have convincingly recreated 1930s-era New York and the soundtrack is full of period music that helps to set just the right tone.
“Me and Orson Wells” is a surprise from Linklater, but it’s a delightful one. (PG-13) Rating: ****
Within five minutes of his 17-year-old character bumping into the theater troupe on a sidewalk, he has met the Mercury's stage director, John Houseman, joked with Joseph Cotten and ultimately charmed Welles himself. Inside of five minutes, young Richard has played the drums, sung a ditty and landed a small role in the genius' shaky upcoming production.
So the film is both a lark and a rather toothless nostalgia trip, awash in name-dropping and only occasionally charming as a coming-of-age story. There are, thankfully, a few performances that keep the picture from emoting its way into pure sentimentality.
One of these is by Efron, who came of age with his turn in "Hairspray," but who adds a previously unseen dramatic element here. Another is that of Christian McKay, a London stage actor and film newcomer who is a near-ringer for Welles, in both looks and the display of ego.
There is a temptation to say that McKay — making grand entrances and holding court every time he speaks — looks less like he is "doing" Welles than he is impersonating Welles doing Charles Foster Kane. But that's Welles, all bluster and brilliance, and McKay captures both the man's antics and his brooding.
The fact is that most of the performances (save for a loopy turn by Claire
Danes as a ladder-climbing Welles assistant with both a heart of gold and an open bed) outshine the sleepy direction by Richard Linklater. His craftsmanship in pictures like "Dazed and Confused" and "Before Sunrise" are unrecognizable in this safe snoozer.
I liked the film's general outline — a stage novice, in the shadow of an entertainment giant, shown in a one-week snapshot of action on a troubled production, with a life lesson learned — better in the form of "My Favorite Year," a comic gem I've seen maybe a dozen times and superior to "Me and " in every way.
Treading the boards on this let's-put-on-a-show material is exceedingly tiresome when a filmmaker has nothing new to add to the story.
But those looking for some brilliant Jazz Age music choices (the Gershwins and loads of lovely Duke Ellington tunes) and a bit of backstage humor can have those modest goals met in "Me and Orson Welles."
DO you want to see a movie set in America’s Great Depression that makes the era feel as real, and the story as urgent, as your own heartbeat? Then rent Public Enemies.
Sadly, Me and Orson Welles is not that picture. Not by a long shot.
This is the kind of movie that’s shot in golden-brown sepia from the first frame to the last, lest we forget for a moment that our story takes place in The Past. It’s the kind of script in which our hero happens upon a young woman he knows as she gazes at a Grecian urn in a museum — while reciting “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” (Even that’s not enough: he has to ask what she’s quoting so she can name poem and poet.) It’s the kind of production whose costumes and sets and hair and makeup were too clearly labored over to look “authentic,” from the shiny cars lining the streets to the impeccably clothed extras crossing a tad too deliberately in front of the camera.
Based on a novel of the same name, Me and Orson Welles is set in New York City in 1937. Still a wunderkind, Welles (Christian McKay) hasn’t yet made the leap to directing movies, but he’s already a star on radio. And he’s about to open the Mercury Theater, where he will both direct and act in prestigious plays.
The movie ushers us backstage at the Mercury with Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an enterprising local high school student. Richard wants to be “some kind of artist,” so he skips school to hang out where the action is, outside the Mercury. Good- looking and confident, he soon catches Welles’ eye and lands a minor role in the theater’s inaugural performance.
Me and Orson Welles is most alive when we’re inside the theater, watching the company bicker, rehearse, and then perform Welles’ inventive version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s interesting to see how Welles exploited, abused and motivated his company, and often fun to watch the actors. Ben Chaplin is both laughable and touching as a high-strung, highly insecure actor. Eddie Marsan earns our respect as the long-suffering John Houseman, who managed the Mercury for the mercurial Welles. And every so often the whole ensemble clicks, making the cast’s neuroses, narcissism and catty competition entertainingly believable.
But a few good scenes can’t carry a movie. My Favorite Year showed us a high- maintenance theatrical genius through the eyes of a starstruck young man and made us care about both. But it played the contrast between the dashing star and his young sidekick for laughs (who could forget Alan Swann’s dinner with Benjy’s family?) Me and Orson Welles falls into the same trap as Julie and Julia, treating the sidekick as if he were as interesting as the star.
It takes what Welles called “a God-created actor” to breathe life into a script this stagey, and Efron doesn’t have what it takes — at least, not yet. McKay does. He’s too old for the part (he’s in his mid 30s, while Welles was just 21 in 1937), but he nails the actor-director’s resonant voice, penchant for bombast, and endless capacity to amuse himself, often at the expense of others.
Besides, Welles is far more interesting than Richard can even dream of being. Outsized and outrageous, he attracts us in spite of ourselves, like iron filings to a magnet, while Richard is just a kid, his ambitions too inchoate to be compelling. The scenes of him at home or at school are uninteresting and unenlightening, telling us nothing we didn’t already know. And what a waste of potential to focus on Richard’s bland flirtation with the theater’s ambitious office manager, Sonja (Claire Danes) when we could be watching a world-class womanizer like Welles home in on his prey.
I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected so much more. Welles’ director, Richard Linklater, specializes in movies that feel like little slices of life — Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. They’re peopled by characters who seem to have wandered into his frame from the street.
I like Linklater’s genre movies too — how could you dislike School of Rock? — but what impresses me most is how he can take a movie that’s almost all talk, like Waking Life and Sunrise/Sunset, and make it shimmer with intensity and feeling.
I thought a talky love letter to great theater and the characters who make it would be right up his alley, but somewhere between the conception and the execution, all the blood got drained out of Me and Orson Welles. It comes to us DOA, a wax museum tableau shot through a tea-stained scrim.
The most entertaining movie opening this Christmas weekend is only at Malco's Ridgeway Four. "Me and Orson Welles" is set on Broadway in 1937, as the confident but not yet world-famous Welles (played with convincing boyish charm and egomaniacal bluster by Christian McKay) prepares to open his Mercury Theatre with an innovative production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," reimagined in Fascist drag. The "me" of the title is Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old high school student who lucks his way into the minor role of Lucius, a lute-strumming servant. Richard is played by former Disney Channel hearthrob Zac Efron, whose hooded eyes add an element of Dorian Gray decadence to his pretty-boy pinup features.
As Richard becomes enamored of his, um, mercurial new "family," he falls for smart, independent Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), assistant to theater manager John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). Houseman and Welles aren't the only familiar names among the cast of characters; other Mercury players who later found fame or at least work in the movies include Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), still-alive-and- kicking-at-95 Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and George Colouris (Ben Chaplin), who was unforgettable as "Mr. Thatcher" when Welles made the leap to movies with "Citizen Kane."
"Me and Orson Welles" is a rare period piece for Richard Linklater, probably the most inventive, versatile and prolific American director now working, with the exception of Steven Soderbergh. Linklater's films range from the Jack Black hijinks of "School of Rock" to the rotoscoped sci-fi social commentary of "A Scanner Darkly" to the real-time romance of "Before Sunset," but "Orson Welles" may remind fans of his coming-of-age cult classic "Dazed and Confused" (1993), in which an impressionable teenager named Mitch hangs with a crew of high school show-offs, beauties and hangers-on that's almost as theatrical as the troupe at the Mercury.
"Me and Orson Welles" is a tribute to the theatrical life (Linklater re-creates significant moments from Welles' "Caesar," and also shows us the live broadcast of a radio drama) and to the transformative power of art -- not just for the audience (which gives "Caesar" a standing ovation) but especially for the artists who make it. Much is made of the notion that art can make a person immortal, at least in the minds of those who appreciate the art. Welles -- who has a pregnant wife, and the pick of the women in the theater -- says acting enables him to escape the nonartist self that he hates; he believes his art will make history. Richard and a would-be writer (Zoe Kazan) contemplate a Grecian urn at a museum, and think about Keats' poem, which also is a meditation on art; they discuss great songwriters, and mourn the recent passing of George Gershwin. But "Me and Orson Welles" is anything but mournful; it's celebratory and inspiring.
Despite its intimate-sounding title, Me and Orson Welles has rather little to say about the great man. Instead, it's a familiar story about a young man who gets in over his head during his first bout with love: adventures are had, lessons are learned, and nobody really gets hurt. Imagine a Woody Allen movie without a divorce, and you're getting there.
In it, a teenaged Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) fast-talks his way into a role in Welles' famous 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar. During rehearsals, he falls for house manager Sonja (Claire Danes), only to find that his attachment to her causes resentment in Welles.
There's little that's particularly groundbreaking here and a lot that isn't, especially in the faux-'30s dialogue. Director Richard Linklater has always been a bit of a magpie who often builds his films on the better ideas of others, and this one seems a little short of a number of other "theater movies," including Allen's own Bullets Over Broadway. In short, there's a persistent sense of recycling.
What makes it gloriously worthwhile is Christian McKay's performance as Orson Welles. This British actor, with only a few other credits to his name, does something wonderful as the megalomaniac wunderkind, imbuing him with all the charisma, charm, and hauteur he wielded as weapons. A performance like this deserves to be sought out, even if the film it's in does not.
In addition to Vincent Van Gogh and Andy Warhol, Orson Welles is quickly becoming one of the movies' favorite artists to portray on screen.
Actors have impersonated Welles in features about his involvement with the Federal Theatre Project (Cradle Will Rock), the War of the Worlds radio broadcast (The Night That Panicked America) and the making of Citizen Kane (RKO 281). Welles even made an ethereal cameo in Ed Wood.
All the fascination has been directed toward the young Welles of the 1930s, when he was still a genius of untold promise. No one has devoted footage to the later, larger Welles of the first Casino Royale or the wine commercials.
The latest is Me and Orson Welles, a fact-based, romantically charged theatrical fable set in 1937, when the 22-year-old Welles launched his Mercury Theater with a landmark Broadway staging of Shakespeare's Julius Casear.
While the production may have made history with its modern-dress reflection of the fascist governments sprouting in Europe, director Richard Linklater's film is a traditional back-stage yarn, more in the vogue of Topsy Turvy than Cradle Will Rock.
Yet, instead of putting producer-director-adapter-actor Welles at the center, the film focuses on a fictional, stage-struck 17-year-old named Richard (Zac Efron), whose random encounter with Welles (Christian McKay) brings him into the production in a small speaking role and into Welles' overwhelming orbit.
Confident Richard adapts quickly to the heady chaos of the rehearsals and even connects romantically with Sonja (Clare Danes), a Mercury administrator and an object of lust for the men in the company.
Still, while Richard's story consumes screen time, the viewer's focus is constantly on McKay's Welles, portrayed as a protean whirlwind of ideas, appetites, boasts and tantrums. The portrait jibes with the historical record, as when Welles holds up rehearsals to dash across town in a rented ambulance to appear on radio programs.
McKay is a British actor in his first leading role, thanks to a one-man London stage show as Welles. His face and vocal tone recall the Welles we know from his early films, even if, in his mid-30s, McKay more strongly resembles the Welles of The Third Man more than a decade later.
The film is somewhat staid for the director of Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, although Linklater does a slick job of recreating the famous Mercury production, carefully saving Welles' best effects - evocative lighting, clouds of smoke for the opening-night performance.
Students of Welles and '30s theater will luxuriate in the details and famous figures on the sidelines (Joseph Cotten, John Houseman), but much of Me and Orson Welles, by the nature of its topic, may be hopelessly inside for a lot of the modern movie audience.
Sound on Sight
In lesser hands, Me and Orson Welles might have been a grandiose love letter to the magic of theatre and the wonder of young love. The audience could have laughed at the charming exploits of that wild eccentric Welles and rooted blindly for the dashing young hero Zac Efron as Welles takes him under his wing. And then everyone could have gone home and forgotten the movie ever happened. Instead, Richard Linklater decided to film a tale about the insidiousness of fame, the dangers of living behind a mask, the trials of working with a raving sociopath and the magic of theatre.
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is a regular old senior at a regular old non-singing non-dancing high school who dreams of the spotlight. One day, while walking though New York City, he impresses none other than Orson Welles (Christian McKay) with his drumming skills and wise-ass demeanor. Welles hires him on the spot to play Lucius in the Mercury Theatre’s adaptation of Julius Caesar. Rehearsal commences, Guy meets Girl (Claire Danes) and the rest, as they say, is a fictionalized account of history.
The film’s title, while an accurate description of who the two leads are, is nevertheless misleading. This is no buddy or mentor movie–it’s a story about a 17-year old who crosses paths with Orson Welles, a man five years his senior but fifty times his seismic magnitude. After a week, one of them learns a valuable lesson about life, and the other goes on to write, direct, produce and act the hell out of Citizen Kane.
The principle cast members are wonderful. Christian McKay can not be praised enough for his portrayal of Welles, which is a masterpiece of mimicry and insightful acting. Zac Efron shoulders the much harder task of acting across from Christian Mckay (not to mention being Zac freaking Efron), but he more than holds his own. His Richard is a nuanced and charismatic portrait of ambition and adolescence. Old reliable Claire Danes gives Sonja Jones, love interest and third lead, a tragic depth that transcends her role as dramatic foil and pretty face. The chemistry between Efron and Danes is clear, and their relationship is far more than a placeholder romance. Nobody else gets nearly as many lines as these three, but the cast really distinguishes itself, especially heading into the climax.
Richard Linklater continues to be a sneakily brilliant director. Working with the actors, he slowly imbues his otherwise stock characters with a humanity that really pays off in the back half of the film. He never takes any shortcuts, letting the dramatic peaks develop naturally out of the cast. Linklater deserves praise, as well, for putting to film an absolutely riveting theatrical performance. His recreated footage of Welles’ Julius Caesar is nothing short of magical, but is in constant, and subtle, contrast to the high emotions and dysfunction of the cast.
With Me and Orson Welles, Linklater and his cast have crafted a perceptive portrait of artists within the art making process. Though Welles portrays but one week during the production of one play, it is a definitive week–even without historical crib notes, it’s not hard to imagine the continued trajectory of these characters. It’s hardly faint praise to say that a more complete Welles biopic seems irrelevant after this. If it was unclear before that Linklater is one of the most interesting and consistent directors working today allow Me and Orson Welles to clear things up.
Orson Welles was known to be difficult to work with as he got older. He was a talented man trapped in an aging body, criminally underappreciated by critics and masses alike. “Me and Orson Welles” superficially peels back the enigma behind the man, as aspiring actor Richard (Zac Efron, “17 Again”) takes on a bit part at the Mercury Theater, where Welles (newcomer Christian McKay) himself is directing a production of “Julius Caesar.”
The film attempts to chronicle the difficulties of working with a superhuman legend, showing shots of the actors waiting around for hours after Welles’s rendezvous with his many mistresses and Welles arbitrarily cutting lines and speeches from the show in order to preserve his own star. Oh, and there’s also a rather bizarre love triangle going on between Welles, Richard and the young theater manager Sonja (Claire Danes, “Stardust”), just because.
McKay tries his hardest, but he's simply not a strong enough actor to take on such a meaty role. He has a couple flashy moments, but none of them come to fruition. As a result, “Me and Orson Welles” falls into the ditch of glitzy, surface-level entertainment, somehow not dramatic enough and not substantial enough to create a story.
Someday there will be a better film about Orson Welles, one that manages to fully embrace what the man represented in cinema. It’s a shame it wasn’t this one.