Zac Efron vehicle Me and Orson Welles offers a sweet, modest, minor take on the great man's mystique 

Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles might be the least Wellesian film ever made about the great director. That's probably a good thing: Nobody wants to see Linklater, a filmmaker most at home amid the messy back-and-forth of human relationships, try his hand at bending cinematic space or fracturing and reinventing cultural mythology. Still, his latest lives strangely between the winds—it pays skin-deep homage to the larger-than-life theatrical figure at its center, yet it only dips a reluctant toe into the muck of desire and disillusion that marks Linklater's best films. Content to function mostly as an affable nostalgia piece, it's entertaining and engaging—and maybe that's enough.

The "Me" of the film's title is an impressionable high schooler by the name of Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron) who finagles his way into a bit part in the Mercury Theater's legendary modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. The year is 1937; Europe is getting ready to blow itself to pieces, and Welles' decision to set Shakespeare's play in a Fascist dictatorship is about to set the American stage aflame.

The Mercury is, of course, a legend in both theater, film and radio history: It's where Welles turned himself into a household name (it was for an episode of The Mercury Theater on the Air that he did his famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast) and from where he drew such notable collaborators as actors Joseph Cotten and George Coulouris, as well as producer John Houseman. You wouldn't exactly guess any of this, though, from Linklater's film. Sure, the gang's all here, with Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan doing notably fine jobs as Coulouris and Houseman respectively, and the film certainly acknowledges the fact that this production represents something special for the theater. But it might as well be Oklahoma! they're staging.

Oh yeah, there's a guy playing Welles too. His name is Christian McKay and he's quite, well, amazing—his performance stands somewhere between expert impersonation and full-on reanimation. He does justice to the great man's mercurial personality, including his occasional bouts of pointed hysteria. (Was Welles as comically shifty-eyed as McKay sometimes makes him? Who cares?) But Linklater doesn't give this Welles much of a character arc, even though he pretty much hands the entire movie over to him. Similarly, you'd think Efron, being the film's nominal lead, would have a lot to do, but his job seems mostly to be young, earnest and beautiful. (One should note that he handles himself commendably.)

The film is all sweetness and light, a nostalgia piece about the theater that rarely strays into darker territories. Should it have? We get one dutiful hint that Welles' career will eventually spin out of control: Stuck in a car with Richard, he reads a passage from Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons and reflects that it's all about "how everything gets taken away from you." Should more have been made of the fact that Welles, only 22 when he staged Caesar, was basically a kid himself? (McKay, by the way, is 36.) And when, as it must to all men, the requisite disillusion comes to Richard, the film still doesn't lose its bouncy step. Again, though, is that such a bad thing? It's hard not to like Me and Orson Welles. But it's also easy to forget all about it.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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