Friday, December 11, 2009
Movie review: Me and Orson Welles
This literate radio days romantic comedy is buoyed along by a jazzy big band soundtrack and the frenetic energy of big egos on parade.
Me and Orson Welles is Richard Linklater's amusing, literate, high-energy cinematic ode to the days when radio ruled the airwaves and live theater fostered the talents of some who would go on to be stars of the silver screen. (Not to mention one or two who wouldn't.)
It's 1937, and upstart renaissance man-of-all-arts Orson Welles (played with the requisite egotism by dynamic newcomer Christian McKay) is preparing to open his Mercury Theater with a decidedly experimental production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
A plucky lad from the 'burbs (Zac Efron as Richard Samuels), energized by the Big Apple's bluster and blare, stumbles into a street-corner audition and is awarded the part of Lucius by dint of the fact that he can play the ukulele. (At least, he says he can play the ukulele.)
Richard has already met one swell girl in a New York museum (Zoe Kazan as the bookish Gretta Adler), and he now comes under the heady, bohemian-scented spell of another in the person of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). Sonja conducts theater business for Welles, and though she has a reputation among the troupe as a cold fish, Richard's devil-may-care confidence results in an immediate mutual attraction.
There's only a week to go before opening day -- which is still actually rather fluid, much to the chagrin of Welles' business partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who is attempting to publicize the event. Welles divides his time between finalizing the roles and the staging of his groundbreaking production, and performing his regular gig in a live radio drama. Richard accompanies him to the studio on one occasion and gets to ride along in the siren-equipped ambulance Welles has commissioned to get him through Gotham traffic and across town in record time.
"You can learn everything you need to know about radio in one hour," Welles informs his young protege, and proceeds to extemporize on the air, leaving his script-bound co-stars gape-jawed and disoriented.
Meanwhile, in the midst of ducking high school classes, coming up with excuses to feed his concerned mom, and trying to remember his lines, Richard's pursuit of the charms of Sonja Jones bears fruit when she invites him back to her apartment after a dinner date. It's in this intoxicating situation, finally, that Richard's seemingly unassailable self-confidence suffers its first misstep.
McKay makes a great and believable Welles, and while Efron's character is the focus of the narrative, it's McKay's portrayal that (fittingly) steals the show. Whether he's playing the role of fatherly patron to Richard, unleashing a tirade before the assembled crew, or acting on stage and in character as Brutus, McKay's talents command our attention -- and respect. (See whether you agree with me that he also projects a distinctly John Lithgow vibe.)
I have seldom seen a movie that so effectively portrays the opening night jitters inherent in live performance. We can feel the tension as, with 10 minutes before curtain, veteran stage actor George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) sequesters himself in his dressing room in a fit of terror. Welles digs deep into his repertoire to restore the shattered confidence of his co-star, on whose portrayal of Marc Anthony everything depends.
Buoyed along by a jazzy big band soundtrack and the frenetic energy of big egos on parade, there's not a dull minute to be found among the 114 or so that comprise Me and Orson Welles.
Break a leg! Just don't miss this movie.
WELL, MAYBE NOT ALL: "That's all we need: a room full of critics with wet asses!" - Orson Welles, after the sprinkler system goes off, swamping the front rows
PRE-GPS?: "If people can't find me, they can't dislike me." - Orson, on continuously re-inventing himself