Release Date: Nov. 25 (limited)
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo Jr. (novel by Robert Kaplow)
Starring: Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Zac Efron
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Studio/Run Time: Freestyle Releasing, 113 mins.
Newcomer upstages teen heartthrob in Richard Linklater’s latest
Zac Efron is ostensibly the star of Me and Orson Welles—he has the biggest name, at least, thanks to his role in High School Musical. But he plays the nondescript pronoun in the film’s title, not the bigger-than-life dynamo who wraps pre-war New York City around his little finger. That role belongs to little-known Christian McKay, who steals every scene as a 22-year-old Orson Welles.
It’s 1937, and Welles stands astride his corner of the world as if it’s an empire. He hasn’t yet made a feature film, but he recently staged an audacious version of Macbeth in Harlem, currently stars in a popular dramatic radio series, and is feverishly working on a Broadway production of Julius Caesar with his newly formed acting company. His Shakespearean credentials are clearly secondary to his boundless capacity for showmanship—he reset Macbeth in Haiti, and now he’s putting his Caesar actors in modern military dress, which in 1937 is a flourish designed to turn heads.
When novice actor Richard Samuels, played by Efron, bumps into Welles on the street, the director gives him a part in his new play based on little more than a hunch. Samuels then becomes our usher into the theater world, the fly caught in Welles’ web, wide-eyed and sure to be devoured.
The most likely adjective to appear in all the reviews written about McKay’s performance is “uncanny.” Not only does he look and sound like Welles—with the cocked eyebrow, the grin and the booming jokes—but he also captures the mad energy surrounding a man who always seems to be performing, a man who expects people to cow to his unwavering brilliance. With sleight of hand, he produces roses from matchsticks; with force of will, he produces high art from weary actors. Or at least that’s how he sees it.
Director Richard Linklater—consistently good if increasingly unpredictable—appears to give as much thought to art-house favorites like Before Sunset as he does more popular fare like School of Rock, and he never seems constrained by a film’s budget, regardless of size. Despite a budget of less than $25 million, Me and Orson Welles looks as glossy as any big studio production, an illusion created largely by clever staging. Much of the action takes place inside a theater, every city’s portal into the past; cover up the modern speaker systems in front of any old stage, and you may as well be in late-’30s New York. Cinematographer Dick Pope, who shot most of Mike Leigh’s films, gives the picture an appropriately clean, bronze-colored glow.
Linklater has assembled a cast of strong character actors, notably Eddie Marsan (the crazy driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky) as producer John Houseman, James Tupper as actor Joseph Cotten, and Claire Danes as the fictional Sonja Jones, one-third of the romantic triangle that develops around our young thespian. Each of these folks is more distinctive than the void that is “Me.” Efron is fine, but as written and acted his character is mostly a passive observer, and it’s easy to tire of him when he, not Welles, is summoned to inch the plot forward.
The characters all evaluate their jobs on a minute-by-minute basis to see if Welles is worth the trouble. The ego, the insults, the sudden changes, the capricious bluster—watching Me and Orson Welles gives a palpable sense of how confusing it must have been to fall under the man’s spell. Those moments when we wish for him to return to screen probably mirror the times when his actors waited for their mercurial leader to grace them with his presence. He’s late for rehearsal, but his magnetism cures all.
One of the film’s best moments provides a glimpse of another project Welles is working on in his spare time: a marked-up radio script for The Magnificent Ambersons. Conventional wisdom considers Welles a young firebrand whose debut film, Citizen Kane, is still widely regarded as one of the greatest ever made, but whose hard-headedness caused him to peak early. The truth is somewhat different. He continued to make movies throughout his life but had increasing difficulty financing them. Later works like The Trial and The Immortal Story, however, show a filmmaker who has experienced no artistic decline, even if the market said otherwise. So the nod to Ambersons—and not Kane—is also a subtle recognition to all of the above. Ambersons is one of his great films, but the studio took it away and shot a new ending, inaugurating the refrain that would echo through his career: What might have been?
Finally, the fact that Linklater used British money (and filmed in London and the Isle of Man) to make a movie about a great American artist highlights the present financial situation for small films—even invigorating works that star popular young actors. For good filmmakers, the current climate is as challenging as it was in 1937.