Me and Orson Welles film review

(This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 August 2010)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., based on the novel by Robert Kaplow

Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan

How very fitting that the new film “Me and Orson Welles” – a fictional story set around the real-life 1937 New York staging by Orson Welles of Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” – opens here in Australia just as thousands of Australian high school students are studying the very same play.  The film, directed by Richard Linklater – well known for his intelligent young adult romances (“Dazed and Confused”, “Before Sunrise”, and “Before Sunset” as well as “School of Rock”) – here creates a teen romance that is likely to appeal to an older demographic, despite the starring role taken by young heart-throb Zac Efron (“High School Musical”, “17 Again”).

So we have the paradox of an intelligent, literate and clever romantic drama about a seventeen year old that is really made for adults, not unlike “Rocket Science”, which had a recent short run in Australian cinemas.  But the similarities don’t end there:  both films are based on stories by New Jersey Jewish men, featuring of course young Jewish men.  “Me and Orson Welles” started as a successful young adult novel by Jewish writer Robert Kaplow, an English teacher in Summit, New Jersey.  His starring character Richard Samuels (Efron, who is also Jewish) makes his way into New York City one day and stumbles upon a crowd outside the Mercury Theatre, where Orson Welles is setting up for his soon-to-open play.

Welles hires Richard to play Lucius after an impromptu audition on the footpath outside the theatre.  (See clip below.)  He joins a company with some classic actors – George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) as Mark Antony, Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), managed by famed actor John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), with Welles taking the part of Brutus in the play.  Also in the play is the luminous Sonja Jones (played by Claire Danes), not apparently a real life person, with whom young Richard falls in love and proceeds to bed.  Richard also has a second girlfriend – an obviously Jewish “Gretta Adler” (played by Zoe Kazan from “It’s Complicated”, and who is the granddaughter of famed film director Elia Kazan).

The play – set in modern dress with fascist blackshirt themes (a radical concept at the time) – was a fabulous success, propelling Welles’ career along with many of his acting troupe.

Welles is played by British actor Christian McKay in a manner we might describe as “channelling” the late actor/director, he seems so real.  This Welles comes across as obsessively self-centred, articulate and bombastic, an accomplished flatterer who is used to getting his way with all things, particularly women.  He is sensitive to criticism and has a voracious sexual appetite, which appears to need satisfying every day.  This young Welles (only 22 when this film is set, but somehow already carrying a life-time of experience) has a reputation for mercilessly cutting Shakespeare to manageable lengths:  “Hamlet” in two thirty-minute blocks, and “Julius Caesar” down to just 94 minutes.  McKay is given most of the film’s best lines, such as when he advises an actress to practice her “consonants, consonants, consonants, and don’t forget the vowels”.

“Me and Orson Welles” neatly evokes the 1930s, and is shot mostly in brown sepia tones, although with a relatively limited budget (mostly using interior sets), with parts of London (including Pinewood Studios) and the Isle of Man (no less) standing in for New York City.  The film is full of knowing references to film and theatre of the 1930s, and surely must be one of the finest recent films about stage acting.  It’s not as memorable as “Shakespeare in Love”, but is irrepressibly positive, capturing the egos, claustrophobia and delights that stage work offers.

As Richard, Zac Efron does a very passable job as the young innocent; he’s intelligent, handsome and cocky, but – in comparison to the quirky characters who surround him – appears a bit bland and possibly not sufficiently insecure or in need of our sympathy.  I never felt his character was in much peril and the one scene where he could be really hurt passed without the impact it clearly was supposed to have.  Along the way Richard learns some hard lessons about the real nature of power, love and heartbreak at the hands of both Sonja and Welles.  But “all’s well that ends well” (to quote another phrase); nobody is surprised to discover that the film ends on a hopeful note.

The film’s official trailer is here:

The impromptu audition scene is here:

And here is another scene, where Richard (Zac Efron) sets off the theatre’s sprinkler system:

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