by Mel Valentin
Among cineastes, the career of filmmaker Orson Welles is an object lesson in the perils of hubris (and independence), especially during the studio system’s heyday. Welles, the much-celebrated boy-genius, arrived in Hollywood with a brief, brilliant career in the theater and a controversial radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ "War of the Worlds." His first attempt at filmmaking, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," failed to overcome technical and dramatic obstacles, but his second, "Citizen Kane," went on to win a Best Screenplay Oscar for Welles and his co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles’ promising career, however, ran into obstacles, financial, professional, and personal, some of his own making, some not, but whatever his failings (and failures), he was an independent filmmaker, following his vision wherever it led, including several masterpieces or near-masterpieces (e.g., "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Othello," "Touch of Evil," "Chimes at Midnight").But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Orson Welles (Christian McKay) we meet Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater’s (A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Before Sunset, School of Rock, Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, Slacker) adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s 2003 novel for young adults, is only 22 (it’s 1937), several years away from moving to Hollywood and making Citizen Kane. Welles, however, has already made a name for himself acting and directing in the theater. With the assistance of his longtime friend and theater manager John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Welles runs the Mercury Theater. For his first make-or-break play, Welles has decided to adapt William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in “modern dress” (i.e., Caesar and the Romans as modern-day fascists).
"An engaging, compelling backstage drama (skip the coming-of-age part)."
Welles’ reputation as a man of big appetites is already evident, especially in his pursuit of women (this despite being married). He has a secret apartment for his dalliances. When he’s not pursuing women or directing rehearsals of Julius Caesar, berating his actors one moment, praising them the next, Welles is dashing off to perform on the radio, using his recognizable voice and acting talents to keep the theater running before the premiere of Julius Caesar. With a week to go, the rehearsals bordering on the chaotic, Welles refuses to change his focus exclusively to the theater. In an impromptu gesture, he hires Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high schooler and drama student, for the small part of Lucius, an aide to the character played by Welles, Brutus.
The inexperienced Samuels gets the full-on experience of the theater, splitting his time between rehearsing, attempting, usually clumsily, to romance Houseman’s assistant, the decades-older Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), getting dubious romantic tips from Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), actors who would go on to long careers in the theater, films, and for Lloyd, television playing a senior doctor on St. Elsewhere. Samuels’ also becomes Welles’ de facto assistant, accompanying Welles on a trip to a radio station (where Linklater name checks Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons) and otherwise observing the manipulative, if no less charismatic, Welles as he prepares his theater troupe for the premiere of Julius Caesar, parts of which Linklater reproduces in the third act.
Unsurprisingly, Me and Orson Welles is at its strongest when the focus is on Welles. As depicted here (a depiction reflected in the historical record), Welles’ is equal parts brilliant and egotistic, a man guided by a sense of self-worth, of the artist’s role in society (including the artist’s unspoken permission to disregard society’s rules), but also tempered, if only briefly, by moments of self-doubts about, if not his talents (which he saw as immutable and maybe even transcendent), but about his ability to pull off what he considered a groundbreaking, visionary interpretation of Julius Caesar, an interpretation controversial for Welles’ pruning of Shakespeare’s text (something Welles did throughout his career). Critics at the time agreed and with his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds a year later,
Just as unsurprisingly, the weakest link in Men and Orson Welles is the “Me” in the title. Linklater mixes a mundane coming-of-age tale (Richard’s) with a far more compelling backstage drama. Richard’s story, even with the addition of a second, more age-appropriate romantic interest, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring writer, never feels less than superfluous or unnecessary (because it is) and as adapted by Linklater’s screenwriters, Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr., it’s also underwritten, borrowing coming-of-age-tropes without adding anything new or original to the mix. And with Zac Efron, an actor better suited to light comedic roles at this point in his early career, Richard’s emotional journey toward self- (and other) knowledge feels just as shallow and superficial (again, because it is).Richard (and Zac) aside, "Me and Orson Welles" is never less than entertaining, primarily for the larger-than-life Welles, who saw life as a stage (and with him as the central actor), McKay’s award-worthy performance (he embodies Welles without turning his performance into slavish imitation), and a vibrant, engaging look at late 1930s New York and the theater scene.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17860&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/04/09 22:17:13