Texas director Richard Linklater’s backstage romance is the season gem
3.5 of 5 stars
ME & ORSON WELLES
Directed by Richard Linklater; with Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes. 114 mins. Rated PG-13. Now at Landmark’s Magnolia.
Before reality shows, people had to get famous the old-fashioned way: They needed actual talent. Me & Orson Welles offers nostalgia for those days (specifically, a week in November 1937 when Welles’ revolutionary staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opened) — especially for those who toil in the arts and stay in it because they (we) are crazy.
In this coming-of-age story, Zac Efron shows he can have a career as a leading man after he graduates from high school. Efron plays Richard Samuels, who is sure he wants to be a musician … or an actor, or a composer, or a writer. He ventures into Manhattan and stumbles upon Welles (Christian McKay, doing a marvelous impersonation) outside the Mercury Theater, where Caesar is soon to open.
Learning that Richard can play a ukulele, Welles hires him to replace a recently-fired actor as Lucius, servant to Welles’ Brutus. Richard may even lose his virginity, if he succeeds where the other men in the company have failed with Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ ambitious young assistant who has advanced networking skills.
So begins a week in which the 17-year-old will learn life lessons and theater lessons and make his Broadway debut. You’ll learn too, about quadruple space and the bad luck thing — and probably about Welles, too.
Welles, only 22 at the time, has a temperament that puts the "mercurial" in the Mercury Theater. He knows he’s a genius and assumes certain privileges go with that status: Cheating on his wife, bullying everyone who works for him, showing up at the last minute for a network radio broadcast and ad-libbing a soliloquy.
Famous for taking liberties with Shakespeare, Welles trims the play to 90 minutes and even cuts half the title. Besides being writer, director and star, he’s a dictator, teacher, psychologist and wet nurse. However he abuses them, some of the company will work with him four years later on Citizen Kane, including producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and actors Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin).
Other figures of the day are name-checked as well, from recently deceased George Gershwin to John Gielgud, David O. Selznick, Les Tremayne, Brooks Atkinson and Harold Ross. Without being too cute, allusions to Welles’ future works The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight are worked in.
Director Richard Linklater scatters in period details convincingly without making an epic. Not being a Wellesian director, Linklater makes it look like all he had to do was pick the right cast and the right screenplay (by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from Robert Kaplow’s novel), then get out of the way. The truth is never that simple. The script might have benefited from a little of Welles’ editing but you won’t be in a hurry for it to end.
It will be a shame if this small gem gets lost among the year-end blockbusters. Fans of something as old as the theater, as new as Glee or as enduring as Welles will love it if they get a chance to see it. •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 11, 2009.