Me and Orson Welles (2009)

17 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Director Richard Linklater’s films always has a sense of reality and accurate pacing (see “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” and even “School of Rock,” which had realistic discussions about music among its formulaic story), and so it’s more than interesting to see him handle a story featuring the late, great Orson Welles. For “Me and Orson Welles,” an adaptation of the semi-biographical novel by Robert Kaplow, Linklater takes not only Welles seriously, but also the theater. To put it simply, “Me and Orson Welles” is one of the best films about the theater you’re likely to come across. It’s charming and well-made, but there may be something a little more.

Let me just get this out of the way—how much is based on fact, I’m sorry to say, is beyond me. Linklater and the writers, Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr., take the novel and historical events and blend them to create a fairy-tale type of story. The story takes place in 1930s New York City, as a high school student named Richard (Zac Efron), an optimistic aspiring actor, walks down the street and stumbles upon Orson Welles (Christian McKay), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), and the other members of the Mercury Theatre. Welles likes Richard’s spirit and decides to hire him to act in a small role in his stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Richard is seduced by the wonders of the theatre and in one long week before showtime, he is a completely different person than he was before he started. He loves what he sees, wants more, and admires Welles’ spirit and energy, even if Welles’ directing methods can get very strict.

Christian McKay’s performance as Orson Welles has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t merely feel like a portrayal; it feels like we’re really seeing Orson Welles, and not Christian McKay. The mannerisms, the expressive voice, the arrogance, the sheer ruthlessness towards others, the improvisations, the theatrical directions he delivers—all of which show that it will be impossible for anyone not to see him as Orson Welles himself. I mean it; he’s that good.

Zac Efron, taking the role to transition himself from his most notable teen-heartthrob work, is quite good here—playing Richard with a sweet innocence, but also some naivety as well (it’s the kind of role Patrick Fugit took in “Almost Famous”). Claire Danes is a real standout among the supporting cast as Sonja, a fetching, keen Mercury member who may or may not have a thing going with the ruthless Welles, but she admires Richard’s innocence enough to try some kind of romantic relationship with him. The rest of the supporting cast members—including Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Kelly Reilly, James Tupper, Leo Bill, and Zoe Kazan—each have their moments.

There’s a real charm to this coming-of-age story featuring Richard as he becomes more intrigued by what he is a part of and learns some important lessons in the process, for good or bad. We see all the aspects of the theater through his eyes, and by Welles’ vision and passion—there certainly is a fascination to these elements even if you aren’t a fan of the theater. The story moves briskly, despite a nearly-two-hour running time, and like most of Linklater’s work, you really get a sense that these characters, most of which based on real people, get a real sense of their environment and their limitations/traits (credit for that should go to Linklater’s direction, as well as the actors). “Me and Orson Welles” is a pure treasure.

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