Me and Orson Welles opens Friday in select theaters
Richard Linklater's eclectic career (Slacker, School of Rock, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly) takes another unusual turn with Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. The story takes the tack of inventing a fictional witness to an event of great historical significance ,and here, the event in question is a 1937 Broadway staging of Julius Caesar. It was the inaugural production of the Mercury Theater Company, and it was to be a triumph for its boy genius-in-residence, 22-year-old Orson Welles.
It's hard to exaggerate the impact and astonishingly quick rise of the man: Welles had already attracted notice for his ongoing radio role as the Shadow, as well as for his all-black Harlem production of Macbeth and an abortive launch of Marc Blitzstein's rabble-rousing opera, The Cradle Will Rock. He'd done all that while others his age were getting drunk at fraternity keggers, and he still was a year or two away from the true notoriety that would come with The War of the Worlds and then Citizen Kane.
The temptation to dramatize the events and culture of those days is enormous: There was jazz on the radio, DiMaggio at the ballpark and Bogart on the screens. The artistic personalities were larger than life, as were the real-life villains and ideological movements. Indeed, Linklater's film is at its best in its re-creation of the conditions under which the production was created. Our nominal hero, Richard (Zac Efron), is a high school kid with showbiz dreams. Wandering into the theater district from his suburban home, he stumbles upon a typically chaotic day at the Mercury Theater, newly ensconced in a crumbling building on 41st Street. He hustles his way into the company (it's easy to get involved with a show if you don't mind not being paid) and ends up with a bit part, thanks to his musical competence. We learn, courtesy of Welles' partner John Houseman (Mike Leigh regular Eddie Marsan), that the show is scheduled to open in a week, and that it's presently in utter shambles. Through Richard's eyes, we watch the terrible and mighty Welles miraculously pull the show together through a combination of genius, chutzpah, bullying and gamesmanship.
It's an action-packed week—and movie—for Richard as he simultaneously pursues a romance with Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater's ambitious office manager while continuing to attend his classes back home. Although Danes is as lovely as ever, and no stranger to Elizabethan-era films (she was Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo and foil to Billy Crudup's transvestite actress in Stage Beauty), there's no edge to her character. She's too nice. Efron, on the other hand, seems to have an instinctive handle on his character's opportunistic moxie, but the script ultimately, and unconvincingly, requires him to end up on the right side of virtue, rejecting the scheming, backstabbing and strategic sexual activity that the film assures us is the true key to success. It's also a little disappointing that the film doesn't exploit Efron's well-documented song-and-dance skills.
Playing Orson Welles convincingly in a film has become something of an actor's Mount Everest: Vincent D'Onofrio did it most memorably in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and Angus MacFadyen played the whiz kid in Tim Robbins' The Cradle Will Rock. Here, Linklater turns to an unknown actor, Christian McKay, who indeed bears an uncanny resemblance to the genuine article. His voice isn't as resonant, of course, but my main complaint about the presentation is that his Welles isn't awe-inspiring enough. While it's understandable that Linklater and the screenwriters would want to humanize him, we don't get the sense of Welles' extraordinary dimensions. Yes, the film is probably correct to note that Welles' M.O. involved a considerable amount of bluffing and posturing, but as presented here it's far too genial. There's never any real menace and only a hint of his largeness, his ability to terrify and inspire. It takes an incredible personality to hold an embattled, cash-strapped theatrical production together, and we just don't feel the high stakes surrounding the show.
The film is most successful in its re-creation of the Caesar production, radical for its time in placing the action in the present, with the forces of the Roman establishment becoming jack-booted fascists. A theater on the Isle of Man substitutes for the long-vanished Manhattan building, and Linklater and his design team lavish attention upon such production details as the trapdoors that were employed to great success, the shafts of light that provided stark illumination for the unadorned stage, the struggles with the cues for Marc Blitzstein's score and the evolution of the staging of the death of Cinna the poet, which would become the show's coup de théâtre.
Me and Orson Welles doesn't quite capture the conscience of the boy wonder, but it does succeed when it lets the play become the thing.