ME AND ORSON WELLES (2008, directed by Richard Linklater, 114 minutes, U.S./U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Feeling more like a “hit” than any film the towering director was ever part of, Me And Orson Welles is a breezy nostalgia piece that never feels slight, thanks to the genius of Welles that hangs over the film with a weighty spirit. Brought to life by little-known actor Christian McKay, the film captures Welles at an early career highpoint, bringing a controversial 1937 Shakespeare production to Broadway. This is Welles before headline-grabbing War of the Worlds broadcast and the convention-shattering Citizen Kane; he was young, bursting with talent and ready to shock the world. Director Richard Linklater captures the buoyant optimism of a country and a young man on the upswing with a giddy atmosphere that sets his film radically apart from the heavy doom and gloom that infests movie screens everywhere these days.
From his low-tech beginnings with Slacker, Linklater has quietly developed into a versatile observer of oddball characters. He’s finished ten features this decade and from Jack Black’s best vehicle School of Rock to the surprisingly moving sequel Before Sunset and his hallucinogenic philosophy lesson Waking Life, Linklater fills his films with chatty, unsatisfied eccentrics chasing a dream. Welles fits into this perfectly, here seen through the eyes of Richard (High School Musical star Zac Efron), a high school actor who bluffs his way into a small role in Welles’ legendary 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. A daring production that used modern dress to evoke the rising fascism of Mussolini’s Italy, we watch as the rehearsals survive flood, bankruptcy and the inevitable clash of egos before making Broadway history. Efron doesn’t make much of his role, like a young Dean Jones he gets by on that slick Disney geniality (even the short bit of singing he does sounds Boy Band-y) but the film is more about what Richard witnesses than who he is.
Much of the action is drawn from the typical cliches of backstage dramas (nerve-struck actors, dressing room Lotharios) yet Linklater has assembled a cast, mostly drawn from the British stage, who breathe life into the lean, smart script (penned by Vincent and Holly Palmo and based on the young adult novel by Robert Kaplow). Claire Danes plays Sonja, Richard’s knowing older lover (it’s nice to see her shaking that colt-ishness and finally looking womanly) and Zoe Kazan oozes a pleasant sweetness as his budding writer friend but it is this British actors who really get across the snappy rhythmic patter we come to expect from people of the era. For Welles’ buffs, there’s added fun that it is future Citizen Kane stars Joseph Cotten (a suave James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) swept up in the hi-jinks as the ramshackle production lurches towards it’s premiere, opening in the shadow of a much-stodgier Shakespearean production, Anthony and Cleopatra with Tallulah Bankhead (which famously received the review “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra—and sank.”).
Linklater has become surprisingly adept at zippy mainstream comedies and the film would succeed as a sweet lark if it weren’t for the giant standing at its center. Christian McKay does the near-impossible task of embodying Welles, capturing not just his voice and cadences but putting together the contradictory facets of the man, the pomposity and the humility, and assembling something that resembles a real person. Richard rides sidecar while Welles recites passages from Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons, breezes through his radio performance of The Shadow and cajoles the actors with good advice, magic tricks and wonderfully eloquent bluster. And when it is time to get onstage to perform as Brutus, McKay makes you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. McKay’s full-bodied portrayal alone makes Me and Orson Welles a must-see for film buffs, it’s almost like stealing Welles’ ghost for one last show. With McKay’s performance being such a marvel one last fact stayed with me: it takes the thirty-five year old McKay to command the authority that Welles once wielded as Brutus when he was the tender age of twenty-two. Same age as Zac Efron is now, which might be an unfair comparison but could any actor today under twenty-five play Charles Foster Kane convincingly, let alone direct the damn thing?
WIKIPEDIA: George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985), best known as Orson Welles was an American film director, writer, actor and producer, who worked extensively in film, theatre, television, and radio. Welles was also an accomplished magician, starring in troop variety spectacles in the war years. Noted for his innovative dramatic productions as well as his distinctive voice and personality, Welles is widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished dramatic artists of the 20th century. His first two films with RKO: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, are widely considered two of the greatest films ever made. His other films, including Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, are also considered masterpieces. He was also well-known for a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells‘ novel The War of the Worlds which, performed in the style of a news broadcast, caused widespread panic when listeners thought that an actual extraterrestrial invasion was in progress. In 2002 he was voted the greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute‘s poll of Top Ten Directors. MORE