Tuesday, September 21, 2010
In awe of such a thing as Welles himself
By Edward Copeland
Few filmmakers have as an eclectic resume as Richard Linklater has developed over the years, most often with positive results, so it's great to see him try another period piece with Me and Orson Welles, particularly after the unfair flailing The Newton Boys received. This 2009 release seemed to escape much notice aside for a brief Oscar push for supporting actor for Christian McKay as Welles and that's a shame, because it's a very good film that deserved more attention.
Zac Efron, acquitting himself quite nicely, stars as high school student Richard Samuels who, while playing drums outside the infamous Mercury Theatre in 1937, meets the famed wunderkind himself and charms Welles enough that he offers Richard a small role in the troupe's currently rehearsing production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The daydreaming Richard, whose drawn to all artistic bents, especially acting, is awestruck and anxiously accepts despite the limited time until the opening date and the lack of pay. If his school suffers, he feels that's a small price to pay for working alongside Welles.
Richard also find himself falling for something besides the theater: Welles' assistant who practically runs the theater, Sonja (Claire Danes), an ambitious young woman who is hoping that her nonstop devotion to Orson will lead to an introduction to David O. Selznick, prepping a film version of Gone With the Wind at the time. All the horny young men in the theater company lust for Sonja, but consider her a bit of a cold fish and strike out in their attempts to land her, but the minor Richard actually finds a bit of luck in that area.
The period details truly make the film breathe and the backstage drama energizes the story, especially thanks to McKay's pitch-perfect performance as Welles, giving him the right mix of genius, ego and asshole. It's truly impressive that Efron holds his own so well.
The large ensemble also does well. It took until the end credits, which I recommend that everyone stay for because they are fun, that it is Eddie Marsan from Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky playing John Houseman. With an actor who was as distinctive as Houseman, Marsan goes in the opposite direction than McKay and doesn't attempt imitation. He just plays the role. There also is fine work from Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, James Tupper and Leo Bill. (In case you don't catch it in the film, the latter two are playing Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd.)
Though I have liked almost every film Linklater has made (I refuse to see The Bad News Bears remake), Me and Orson Welles works so well on every conceivable level that I believe it's his best film since Dazed and Confused and he's made some very good films since then. It not only tells a wonderful story with the script by Holly Gent Palmo & Vincent Palmo based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, its atmospherics and general sense of the importance of all arts to life really delivers an important message at a vital time.
The production design by Laurence Doman, cinematography by Dick Pope and costumes by Nic Ede all lend credibility to the film's gorgeous depiction of 1937 New York. Simply put, it is by far the most beautiful film Linklater has yet made.
Still, if you only watch Me and Orson Welles for one reason, that should be for Christian McKay's brilliant turn as Welles. He resembles the actor-writer-director at a young age and gives a resonating performance that goes beyond mere impersonation.