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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Film Review | Me and Orson Welles

Et tu, Orson?

by Thomas Delapa

When it comes to wunderkinds, few, if any, have ever equaled the kinds of cultural wonders accomplished by the young Orson Welles. He directed his incomparable Hollywood masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at age 25. At 23, he infamously panicked the nation with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. And for his theatrical sensations, at age 22 he landed on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him “the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years.”

It is this latter Welles that triumphantly ascends in Me and Orson Welles, which features a stellar marquee performance by Christian McKay in the better half of the title roles. The lesser half goes to Zac Efron, heartthrob graduate of Disney’s High School Musical franchise.

Director Richard Linklater opens his curtain on 1937 New York City, where Welles (McKay) and his nascent Mercury Theatre are in rehearsals for its audacious modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Waiting in the wings is Richard Samuels (Efron), a 17-year-old who bluffs his way into the small part of Lucius. At the center of the Mercury whirlwind is Welles, dazzling the mere mortals around him with bluster, brilliance, ego, and charm.

Considering McKay’s magisterial impersonation--even if he’s a trifle old for the role--audiences may feel cheated when he makes his exits. Yet looking directly at the sun can be blinding, which may account for novelist Robert Kaplow’s squinty focus on Richard’s coming-of-age story. The lad quickly mimics the sleight-of-hand tricks from his quicksilver mentor, especially in the ways of romance. Backstage, he makes time with the company’s starstruck, Vassar-educated receptionist (Claire Danes).

No hero-worshipping revival, Me and Orson Welles sketches a colorful, warts-and-all portrait of a man who would ruefully later say, “I started at the top and worked down.” At his zenith in New York, Welles would whipsaw between his theater productions and radio shows (like The Shadow), winging around town by ambulance. Like his own Charles Foster Kane, Welles’ brilliance was matched by a king-sized hubris that alienated friends and countrymen alike. At the Mercury, producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) plays Welles’ exasperated foil, complaining, “The primary business of the Mercury Theatre is waiting for Orson.”

With suggestions of both Beckett and Pirandello, the Mercury players wearily wait for Orson’s entrances, and he never fails to deliver on cue with inspired Shakespearean interpretations. For his Caesar, he exchanges togas for 1930s fascist uniforms, boldly incorporating expressionism, Chicago gangsters and stark lighting design mocking Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.

In this film, the play is admirably the thing, and Linklater and company pay tribute to Welles’ genius--and live theater--in a medley of scenes from Caesar, right down to the silhouetted spittle sprayed by the actors. Perhaps a mite too self-consciously, offstage Welles whispers in soliloquy, “How in the hell do I top this?”

As eager as Linklater is to build up Welles, he’s not shy about plunging in a few daggers. Ever the opportunist and manipulator, Welles lets his minions know who’s boss, bellowing “I own the store!” to any who might challenge his imperial edicts.

Owing to McKay’s shining, if all-too-brief, performance as Welles, we can second Antony and say to all the world that “This was a man.” Opposite McKay, and given to weepy emotionalism in his climactic scenes, Efron pales. What is one left to say but “This is a boy”?


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