Richard Linklater returns to the big screen after a three year absence with Me and Orson Welles, a jazzy backstage coming of age picture. It’s a fast-moving period piece that chronicles the coming together of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar, it’s first. To borrow the Bard’s parlance, the film’s a lark.
The movie’s ultimate insignificance is not, however, a knock against it. While Me and Orson Welles rarely treads below the surface, it brings verisimilitude to its depiction of the New York theater scene and the world surrounding it, and a sort of classical energy to the proceedings. It’s strenuously old-fashioned, valuing personality and wit over clichéd pyrotechnics.
Fortunately, one of the personalities it so values happens to be the bombastic, brilliant one belonging to Welles (Christian McKay), who lords over the Mercury as his own personal fiefdom, instilling a mixture of fear, contempt and loyalty in everyone therein. McKay looks and sounds exactly like the real person, nailing the regal cadence of his voice and the haughtiness of his physical demeanor. Really, he gets everything down to the smallest, subtlest eye movements. It’s an extraordinary immersion that rivals the legendary portrayals of icons in movies past.
Let there be no confusion: Though Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student dreaming of the world beyond the classroom, serves as the main character, this is McKay’s show. The scenes in which he’s not involved feel like various iterations of filler, mere window dressing before the main attraction shows up. The movie threatens to fly under the radar of a crowded end of the year marketplace, but it’d be shameful were the performance to go unrecognized.
There is the age-old “bright lights, big city” narrative, in which Richard flees the doldrums of school and small town life for New York. There, he audaciously approaches the company outside of the theater and wins a small part in the play. He falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), the secretary, hangs out with Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and gets a front row view of the tumultuous swings in tones and emotions that accompany the Orson Welles experience.
Efron shows some personality as Richard, convincingly adapting to the vocal stylizations and refined dialogue of the period. For the first time, the actor reveals some potential for breaking free from the High School Musical ghetto. He and Danes generate some nice chemistry, but their characters get along too well too quickly, robbing their scenes together of the snappy back and forth we’ve been accustomed to expect of big-city romances of the period. Screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel, imitate Howard Hawksian rhythms in their sculpting of the dialogue, but they never quite evoke the witty complexity of the verbal master at his best.
Still, Richard primarily serves as the audience’s doppelganger, the ticket into the magical world of the Mercury Theatre in its infancy, with the legendary exploits to come still ensconced in Orson Welles’ imagination. The primary attraction of the piece is the opportunity to watch this seminal work come together, to see the rehearsal process develop, to grow to understand Welles’ methods as a director and an actor and become acquainted with several other legendary individuals. With the rich corduroy browns that define its visual style, streets bustling with travelers and newsboys and elaborate recreations of city landmarks of the period, the film offers a vision of an era rarely seen on screen that aligns perfectly with its most famous past representations. In fact, Linklater’s work serves as an affectionate throwback, consciously made without much originality, in every way but one: McKay’s performance, which has an intense immediacy that’s all its own.
The Upside: Christian McKay is an amazing Orson Welles, nailing every facet of the legend’s physical demeanor and personality.
The Downside: The movie’s pretty lightweight, and at times it feels rather insubstantial.
On the Side: The film first showed at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, but the length of time it’s taken to be released is not indicative of its quality.