Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater

CinemaNX, 107 mins.
* * *

Me and Orson Welles is half of a great film. See if for several fine performances, its glimpse into 1930s New York City, and its broad, but powerful character sketch of Orson Welles. Do not expect to see uniformly great acting, a scintillating script, or visionary filmmaking.

The action, such as it is, revolves around New York’s legendary Mercury Theatre, a cast assembled by the steady John Houseman and the (ahem!) mercurial Orson Welles. Mercury assembled some of the finest actors of that generation: Welles, Anne Baxter, George Colouris, Joseph Cotton, Hans Conreid, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Agnes Morehead, Paul Stewart…. The Mercury players won fame (and infamy) for radio plays such as Dracula, Treasure Island, and The War of the Worlds, but it also did live theater.

The film story takes place during a few hectic weeks in 1937 as Welles and Houseman scramble to stage Julius Caesar. Welles (Christian McKay) presented it as a parallel to fascist Italy, a pathbreaking interpretation that remains the longest-running production of the play to date. Before it opened, however, chaos reigned as actors struggled to grasp Welles’s vision and cope with his whims, anger, and ego. Into this mess steps young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student smitten with the stage and Mercury Theater’s office manager Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). Richard snags a minor role in the play and becomes the “Me” of the film’s title.

There are several fine secondary performances, many of them turned in by veterans of the British stage. Ben Chaplin plays George Colouris with a deft balance of braggadocio and near-crippling self-doubt. In like fashion, James Tupper portrays Joseph Cotton as an elegant rake who knows exactly when to advance and when to retreat to the shadows. One wishes also that Eddie Marsan had been given more screen time to air his Houseman, whom he shows as warring between his pacific and neurotic natures. Many Mercury Theatre associates railed at Welles, but Houseman’s was one of the few voices to register.

Would that everyone was as good as these three and McKay. Leo Bill looks good as Norman Lloyd and is occasionally great, but he also falls prey to histrionics. Claire Danes is competent as the sassy Jones, a woman perfectly willing to sleep with whomever it takes to land a job with David O. Selznik. Danes, who is thirty, doesn’t pull off the 1930s look, however. She’s supposed to be a seductive lass in her twenties, but she looks more like shopworn mid-forties.

The weakest role by far is Zac Efron’s Richard. Efron is mostly a TV actor and it shows. He’s supposed to be seventeen, but he plays it a made-for-television seventeen in which he has a teen’s cockiness down cold, but without the gnawing doubts and awkwardness that go with the chronological turf. In scenes where he’s supposed to pine, he’s as wooden as an oak.

As for the direction, well…it’s classic Richard Linklater in that it looks better than it is. He’s done visually appealing stuff with costuming, props, and recreating Depression Era venues such as the Comedy Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As in other Linklater films (Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) it’s all shiny, a surface sheen he hopes will blind viewers to a lack of depth. The foreshadowing homages Linklater inserts for Welles aficionados seem more contrived than clever, especially a telegraphed passage lifted from The Magnificent Ambersons. The overall script feels more improvised than written, and let’s face it, the hook of a movie about a director having trouble staging his play is not exactly the cold fusion of novelty.

What makes *any* of this work is Christian McKay’s stunning portrayal of Welles. It is a performance not to be missed and surely one of the year’s finest. Welles is shown as an unpredictable tempest of cyclonic energy, a genius but one who puts the “I” in egotism. When the storm blows, no one eats, sleeps, or dares protest until Welles’s spit-and-anger fury burns off. McKay doesn’t just *play* Welles; he inhabits the role physically and temperamentally. Were it not for an ever-so-slightly higher voice you’d swear that Welles had risen from the grave. He’s so good, in fact, that the *Me* role of Richard seems superfluous. We are supposed to infer that Welles—though he played Brutus—is akin to Caesar. In truth, a much better title (and focus) for this film would have been The Making of Citizen Kane.

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