Mark Reviews Movies

ME AND ORSON WELLES

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Tupper, Leo Bill

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references and smoking)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 11/25/09 (limited); 12/11/09 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2009

This could probably be considered the start of it all for Orson Welles. After success on stage as an actor, he formed the Mercury Theatre, starting up the company with a 1937 performance of Julius Caesar. The success of the theatrical troupe would lead to a stint on the radio. That achievement would land him in film, and from there, the rest is legend. This was the start of Welles becoming famous for being able to do just about anything and infamous for the way he would do it.

These are not contradictions when it comes to Welles, and it's something that Me and Orson Welles understands well. He knew what he wanted to do, would do anything to get it done the way he wanted, and as long as you didn't stand in his way, you got to reap the benefits of being a part of Welles' vision. Also, you had to give up any notions that your role in the vision was anything more than a cog in his machine.

This is the hard lesson a young, aspiring actor named Richard (Zac Efron) learns after he's cast off the street for Mercury's modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's historical tragedy set in fascist Italy. Richard knows what he wants at this stage in his life as well. He wants to act, and if that means lying about being the best ukulele player Welles will ever meet, well, there's always a few days before the production's preview starts.

Christian McKay, an English actor who portrayed Welles in a one-man show in the UK and New York several years ago, plays Welles at the rambunctious age of 22. It's four years before Citizen Kane would cement him into legendary status, but McKay understands that Welles was perhaps always a legend in his own mind. If other people don't see him the same way, that's their problem.

McKay is not just a superlative imitator here (that he looks uncannily like Welles is helpful) but also a conjurer of his spirit—a sort of smooth confidence man playing a man who here finds multiple ways of conning his producer, actors, and the rest of the theater staff into doing exactly what he needs them to. They all follow him, even if they have to spend a lot of rehearsal time "Waiting for Orson" so the man can record a radio drama, woo the new dancer, actress, or receptionist, and argue with the theater's producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) about when the show will actually, finally open.

Welles knows what he wants out of himself and can perform to his own expectations while keeping an eye on how those around him can fail to meet them. While rehearsing scenes with Richard (Welles as Brutus; Richard as the faithful servant Lucius), he gives the young actor notes in between lines. After finally allowing his cast a dress rehearsal, Welles walks up to each of his actors individually, succinctly hitting the crux of what they need, need, need to fix (If she doesn't speak up, he warns his pretty, young Calpurnia, it will be the last time she appears on stage—not a threat but fact).

Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.'s script (based on Robert Kaplow's novel) understands that Welles' self-confidence (or arrogance), drive (or ambition), and need to control every little detail (or, simply, tyranny) is what made him great and never sugarcoats any bit of it. He rants and raves, tossing harsh insults, one moment, and is almost perfectly calm the next. When he has a seemingly heartfelt moment with Richard, calling the kid a "God-made actor" and a "vision of magnificence," it is only a little later that Richard oversees Welles doing the same thing to another member of the cast.

The Welles material is key, but the script also understands the world of a theatrical production, fleshing out all the backstage drama that inhabits it. Little things, like credits in a program or an actor's affair within the company, erupt into potentially show-stopping meltdowns, while big things, like the sprinklers flooding the house and an actor having a nervous breakdown just before the curtain rises, are merely a case of mandatory pre-opening bad luck. Any problem with the talent can be solved with a glass of scotch and some hollow words spoken in a heartfelt tone.

The film knows the egos, the multitasking, the jealousy, the importance but usual lack of clear communication (a bit involving Welles' symbols for music cues is hilarious ("If you want fanfare, why don't you just write 'fanfare' on the script," the exasperated band-leader asks as the audience starts to roll in). As directed by Richard Linklater, it's all captured in intimate detail, giving us a clear picture of interpersonal and professional relationships and how they force the best of those involved and can fade just as quickly as they start.

All of this is from Richard's eyes, as he comes in a naïve romantic about the theater, falls for the Mercury's intern (Claire Danes)—a girl even Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, another startling look-alike) can't get into bed—and has his moment fame. Efron is quite good at playing the kid who knows what he has to do make it, pretends well enough that he can do it, but ultimately can't stand what that means to something deeper within himself. He can't just stand by while Welles gets what he wants, depriving Richard of what he thinks he needs, and the young man really can't take it when he realizes Welles gets what he wants because others are so willing to give anything.

In Richard's tumultuous week of career placement, Me and Orson Welles captures that initial wonderment and the eventual disillusionment that comes when the business and people involved in show business turn out to be exactly what they appear on the surface: all a show.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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