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4 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Me and Orson Welles
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by Jay Seaver

"Orson Welles just blots out the people around him."
4 stars

At times, it's a bit hard to grasp that Orson Welles was a sex symbol, once upon a time. Forget the way he ballooned to a size that matched his ego and personality later in life; he did the same in the film widely considered his masterpiece, so that the image that most moviegoers (who likely haven't seen much of him beyond stills of "Citizen Kane") have of the man is bloated and arrogant. Though fictional, Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is a reminder that once, only half of that description is true.

But this isn't really Welles's story. As the title implies, we follow Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high-school student with a love for theater and music which is being slowly strangled at school. One day, he goes into the city and walks by the Mercury Theater, where Welles (Christian McKay) is mounting a production of Julius Caesar with himself as Brutus. Richard bluffs his way into the man's good graces, landing the minor role of Lucius. There he meets a number of other ambitious actors - established names like George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), fellow rookie Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and the beautiful Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). In many ways it's a dream come true, but Richard will soon discover that the theater is aptly named - Welles is nothing if not mercurial.

Even without someone who is both a perfectionist and extremely unreliable at the helm, putting on a play, like being in a band or playing high-level sports or making a movie, is the sort of activity that we outsiders likely have a difficult time fully grasping. It's a bunch of people with vast reservoirs of self-confidence, strong personalities, and individual visions trying to work together, and more often than not managing it because they share the same enthusiasm as well. Me and Orson Welles does a great job of showing the crazy energy that goes into mounting a production. There's conflicts of personality and practical matters of how things are handled. Linklater and company do a really fantastic job of showing just how the whole process works; it's one of the best examples I can remember of showing the collaboration between director, actors, and technicians without trying to over-romanticize the process or give one piece more credit than they may be due; when we see bits of the production in the end, we're impressed with what the film's Welles and his company managed and see how everything fits together.

That's in large part because Christian McKay makes us see Orson Welles for the force of nature that he was. Genius and charisma are tricky things to portray - they're extraordinary traits that are either there or not; an actor who can tap into his or her own experiences of sorrow and joy may not have access to a memory of being brilliant or magnetic. Somehow, McKay finds a way to make it perfectly clear just how frustrating someone like Welles, who is both aware of his genius and willing to leverage it, can be. And yet, we're also drawn to him as the people in his orbit must have been - even after we see what a less-than-wonderful human being he can be, we still want a piece.

McKay's performance is the forceful, memorable one, but Efron makes a nice complement. It's clear, early on, that Richard shares a certain cockiness and brashness with his mentor, but there's a streak of innocence to him that stops just short of having unreasonable illusions. It's what makes us think that he can, eventually, succeed and still be likable; Efron does a nice job of showing Richard as both self-assured and willing to learn. Similarly, Claire Danes manages to take a character who, going from her lines and role in the story, could come across as simply mercenary, and make her very human and positive.

The production is top-notch, with Linklater working from a script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (itself based upon Robert Kaplow's novel). It strikes a nice balance between being chatty and fast-paced, and the filmmakers have a nifty eye for detail. What's particularly impressive is how they can work those details in there without becoming burdened by irony: A story that includes Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, references to The Magnificent Ambersons and David O. Selznick could get very cutesy or try too hard to impress the classic movie-lovers that will be its main audience, but this film manages to avoid it. Even scenes about kids in their late teens and early twenties talking about the music of the 1930s the same way their kids and grandkids would talk about rock & roll manage to avoid inappropriate laughter.

Richard Linklater can be a hit-and-miss director, only very rarely finding mediocrity. "Me and Orson Welles" is one of his hits, recalling its era's backstage comedy while still always managing to have a little bit of something that stings in reserve.

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originally posted: 01/13/10 16:00:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/05/15 David Hollingsworth Amazing and charismatic! 5 stars
12/30/09 damalc great acting. perfectly hammy. 4 stars
12/19/09 kuumu523 It Woow!!!, 5 stars
12/08/09 mary it was fantastic 5 stars
9/18/08 denny very enjoyable period piece; a different linklater 4 stars
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  25-Nov-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Aug-2010


  DVD: 17-Aug-2010

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