Sunday, December 20, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

A tender little trifle called Me and Orson Welles is whispering its way through theaters this holiday season and I can't recommend enough that you run out and catch it while you have the chance. Presumably unmarketable despite a couple marquee names, the picture is being distributed by its own production company after failing to find a buyer on the festival circuit.

Set in a glossy 1937 New York City, the film follows a young boy named Richard who stumbles into a bit part in Orson Welles' controversial, galvanizing staging of Julius Caesar. Or rather, the production is just "CAESAR" - Welles is that rare figure that can slice half of the text out of a Shakespeare play and still make it count. As Richard enters the fray, the opening has already been delayed several times and Richard's role is available because - and this is just one of several ego-related problems backstage with the production - Orson keeps firing people. Richard is warned: the last guy gave Orson attitude.

Richard is played by Zac Efron, for whom I will humbly admit a growing affection. He's a uniquely perfect choice for the role. Richard essentially lies his way into getting the part, pretending to be older, more experienced and more able to play the ukelele than he actually is. Everyone rolls their eyes at the kid, which is pretty much what the artsy intelligentsia like to do at poor Efron in spite of his considerable wit and charm. Richard has a week to learn his lines as well as how to play the "lute" or else his career in the theater will be over before it starts. His part as been recast before, and if it comes down to the wire, Orson can always just cut it.

There are lots of great theater in-jokes - Welles refers to the Lunts as "the dinosaurs on the cover of Time Magazine" - but there are plenty of lessons to be imparted here, not all having much to do with playacting. It's a very straightforward coming-of-age story, and Richard is going to get a dose of love, heartbreak and adulthood. This is nothing we haven't seen before, but the movie strikes perfectly that rare chord between sentimental and saccharine.

The real triumph of the film is the actor Christian McKay, who plays Welles. Orson Welles is more legend than man at this point, and McKay is hardly the first impersonator to come along (my favorite so far has been Vincent D’Onofrio in Tim Burton’s underrated Ed Wood). But McKay doesn’t stop at doing impressions, though he might’ve gotten away with it given his uncanny physical and vocal resemblance. No, McKay imbues this character with a sense of flawed humanity that carries the picture. The Orson Welles as written here hews dangerously close to comic book villain – he’s a mentor and a genius, but set off his temper and you can imagine him dropping a skyscraper on you or exploding your head with his eyes. McKay pulls this off without once hamming it up or overacting. His Welles knows full well that he owns a rare and necessary artistic voice, that he can (and will) sleep with any woman in New York and that if his Fascist Italy-set play is too abrasive or too muddled, his company will be bankrupt and his career in the theater will be done with. This is a complex character raging with torment and self-loathing – a madman torn apart by his own brilliance. It’s thrilling stuff to watch.

It also sets a perfect juxtaposition to the simplicity and naivety of Richard and his arc. Richard, who doesn’t have enough problems, also decides to pursue the company secretary, who is lusted after by every man in the show. She is played by Claire Danes, who gives Efron his biggest obstacle. (When I watch these two onscreen I’m confounded by anybody who would challenge Efron’s charisma when it is so visibly being sucked away by Danes’ black hole) Despite Danes, the beats of their relationship play out like a song, and the inevitable ending is made sweet by the presence of a brunette to Danes’ blonde for Richard to default to.

Early in the film, Richard flirts with a struggling writer named Gretta. She is doe-eyed and dreamy to match him, and they share a reverie about the exciting promise of being young and creatively-inclined in New York City. Played by Zoe Kazan, Gretta is a wonder for what little screen time she has. It’s only after their encounter - wherein Richard embarrassingly admits that while self-identifying as an actor he doesn’t actually have any experience acting - that he walks around the block and gets himself a role in CAESAR. It’s possible, actually, to read the entire film as an elaborate plot to win her hand and if that’s the case, I’m fine with it. Kazan is exactly the kind of girl you set out to impress by risking all your dignity in front of someone like Orson Welles.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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