Sunday, January 3, 2010

Me and Orson Welles

A very good movie that may have fallen between the cracks. Too bad.

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

I may be struck by lightning for saying this, but there are parallels between dreamy teen idol Zac Efron of High School Musical fame and Orson Welles. Efron has the world at his feet, just as Welles did some 70 years ago. The reasons, of course, are different. In his twenties, Welles' brilliance propelled him to become the toast of New York's radio and theater scene. He then took those lessons to reinvent film at age 26 with Citizen Kane.

Time will tell what direction Efron's career takes—personally, I think he'll achieve an agreeable middle fame; he looks too much like a brunette Ken doll—but Welles' career went to shambles well before his 1985 death. How someone with that early resume ends up shilling wine and doing voice work in Transformers: The Movie is a mystery to me. (I hope it's answered in Simon Callow's extensive, multi-part biography on Welles. That remains on my must-read list.)

Thanks to time and Welles' later career, it's easy to overlook the man's impact on American culture. Me and Orson Welles, based on Robert Kaplow's novel, is a stunning tribute to the man's early genius, thanks to an Oscar-worthy performance by Christian McKay. With Efron playing a young actor employed and entranced by Welles, the movie is also a coming-of-age tale supervised by a creative genius/raging egomaniac. And you thought high school was tough.

Efron plays Richard Samuels, an intellectually curious but restless 17-year-old who'd rather read Noel Coward than pay attention to what's going on in class. During one trip to explore the cultural oasis of New York, he wanders past a crowd at Welles' Mercury Theatre. By displaying some talent (singing a Wheaties jingle, performing a drum roll) and pluck (lying about his ukulele experience), he impresses Welles enough to gain a part in his elaborate modern-day interpretation of Julius Caesar.

Richard gets the job on Nov. 5, 1937. The play opens in six days, so the kid is immediately thrown into the craziness. (The chief occupation, a costar tells Richard, is waiting for Orson—a simultaneously scary and boring arrangement.) Regardless, he falls in love with this new world and its more mature inhabitants; he should have been here all along. Richard meets the alluring Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles' Vassar-educated do-it-all assistant, who is out of everyone's league but somehow lets Richard in. He holds his own talking women with playboy Joseph Cotten (Julius Tepper) and goofball Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), while staying on Welles' good side.

That last quality is like painting Mona Lisa on the head of a pin: Welles is a temperamental mix of intoxicating confidence and raging intelligence. Those same qualities that can condense Hamlet for radio and charm women within seconds also produce a man with an immense ego who abhors compromise. And when Richard sets his sights on Sonja, he inadvertently challenges Welles.

Efron might be the biggest name on the movie poster, but the film belongs to McKay, who nails Welles' every mood change so effortlessly while defying good guy-bad guy categorization. Aside from looking and sounding like him, McKay captures Welles' force of personality without ever going off the rails. It's remarkable, compelling work reminiscent of Frank Langella's interpretation of Richard Nixon. Efron gives a solid performance, accurately portraying Richard's quandary: He's desperate to live in an adult world, but has no idea how unprepared he is. And Danes, lovely and charming and brimming with certainty, provides the perfect litmus test for the kid.

With a diverse resume that includes everything from School of Rock to Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater is the perfect director for Me and Orson Welles, incorporating multiple angles—coming-of-age story, character study, tribute to a forgotten time—into a lovely film that's never hokey or forced. The movie feels bigger and smaller than it actually is. In other words, it perfectly captures the world Richard wants to inhabit that's ruled by a temperamental god.

Linklater is also responsible for one of 2009's most memorable scenes: In one long take, Welles breezes into his radio gig, seduces the receptionist, and greets his fellow actors with an ease and gregariousness that dominates the room. Welles is clearly in charge; he excels in life, in art. His future looks glorious. It's too bad we already know the ending. [PG-13]

No comments: