Me and Orson Welles
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes
Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins
Release Date: December 11, 2009 (limited)
PLOT: A young wannabe actor (Efron) is taken under the wing of directing genius Orson Welles (McKay) as he works with his Mercury Players theatre company to revolutionize Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in 1937.
WHO’S IT FOR? Fans of Welles will likely cherish this wonderful impersonation even more so than squads of slightly grown up Efron fans who experiment with the High School Musical actor’s attempt at something a bit different. The film isn’t exclusive to either of these groups, as its comedy reaches past those who are aware of Welles’ quirks or Efron’s looks.
EXPECTATIONS: How would the expected drama with Efron balance with the true story of Welles’ magnificence? Would the legend’s impersonator, McKay, be able to effectively duplicate both his iconic look and voice? Even with all of that said, the name of School of Rock (among others) director Richard Linklater was enough to make this a curious watch.
Zac Efron as Richard Samuels: Don’t throw major accolades at him just yet: Efron is still playing a young whippersnapper with the power of attraction that can make any female weak at the knees, especially older women like Danes. His vocal pipes are on display, but they are applied to a beautiful lonesome melody heard at the end of “Julius Caesar” in a moment that should defeat any foul cries of his HSM skills impeding on a film about Orson Welles. As for being Orson Welles’ “Junior,” Richard gets a little melodramatic when he discovers what heartbreak is, but these moments are meant to be naïve. This isn’t the role that will get Efron access to truly mature characters, but it’s a solid step toward that very goal.
Christian McKay as Orson Welles: Wow. It’s spectacular casting that this project was able to find someone with the same cheeks and eyes of Welles, never mind an actor able to duplicate such an iconic voice (something that had only been able to be done by Maurice LaMarche, voice of cartoon character The Brain). This is one of the best impersonations ever of the legend, as McKay’s performance pays careful attention to the tiniest details of Welles’ swagger, including his headjerks. The man Orson Welles is a fascinating character by himself, with his unpredictable actions and boundless intelligence. He was also a very funny man (apparently). Philip Seymour Hoffman got award recognition for a cloning of Truman Capote – this is certainly possible for newcomer McKay.
Claire Danes as Sonja Jones: This easygoing ambassador to the Mercury Players also offers Richard an intriguing side tour into sexuality. Contrasted to the egotistical thespians in the group, Sonja is charming, even if her career success-through-sex attitude is a bit depressing. Danes puts a natural sweetness into this role that is as mature as it is youthful, especially when she has to play the “Efron’s a heartthrob” card – even though the actor is 17 here.
TALKING: Speaking with timely vernacular with slang like “bunk,” Me and Orson Welles has the timing of a play, with its actors following dialogue beats more similar to a theatrical production of its own. This method gives it a slight push towards fantasy. Efron has a few corny lines, (all of which appear in the trailer), that we could have done without. “Sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life” is an unwelcome layer of cheese.
SIGHTS: There are numerous references to future works that will come from Welles, most of these occurring in dialogue. However, there’s a very clever shot with Joseph Cotten that echoes the one Welles will later make classic in Carol Reed’s The Third Man in 1939. Linklater’s recreation of “Julius Caesar,” which is presented in an abridged yet cohesive version, is about as intense as I imagine the real version from 1937 had intended. The production design, especially the costuming, expands the film’s wonderful visual palette.
SOUNDS: A careful selection of beautiful tunes from the era help make this one of the better soundtracks to feature songs from the 1930’s. Sweet melodies like “I Surrender Dear,” “Let’s Pretend There’s A Moon,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” compliment the aesthetic prettiness of the film and contribute even more to its period piece authenticity.
BEST SCENE: The scene that involves Welles discussing The Magnificent Ambersons with Richard, and later on presenting it with his radio group. It is the only moment in the movie that hints at the man’s cinematic adaptation of the work, and it is a great example of Welles’ power behind a microphone. This scene is also a showcase for McKay’s voice that should impress the skeptics.
ENDING: During the applause they receive opening night, Welles smiles to himself and says, “How do I top this?” To everyone’s surprise, Richard’s future with the Mercury Players is soon cut short.
QUESTIONS: Just how big of a Welles fan is the Dazed and Confused director anyway?
REWATCHABILITY: It would be a pleasure to experience McKay’s performance again, while also keeping a sharp eye out for all of the references to Welles’ career. Maybe after a third view, the “love story” between Efron and Danes will get a bit tired.
Is it a coincidence that director Linklater shares the first name of Efron’s character? A “yes” answer would only make the most sense, as Me and Orson Welles is a classic film geek’s dream. It presents Welles when he’s on the brink of his magnificence (his masterpiece Citizen Kane would be in the sequel). The vivacious costume colors and theatrical pacing of the film make it more of a fantasy, and even the love story between young Richard and decade-older Sonja is something most of us, (those not named Zac Efron, at least), could only imagine. To watch the Mercury Players clash with their egos in their beginning moments of success is a treat, but McKay’s impersonation of Welles is a whole other dessert. The newcomer’s performance is that geek’s dream coming true, as he presents a recreation of Orson Welles that is entirely faithful to the legend’s egotistical aura, down to his love for magic, food, and most of all, himself. With an enchanting film like Linklater’s, it becomes even easier to understand why he’d be so enamored with the latter.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10