Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Review - Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater must have leapt for joy when he laid eyes on Christian McKay. The British actor, who makes his film debut here, is perfect for the part of Orson Welles, and without his remarkable effort Linklater wouldn't have much of a movie. As it stands, he still doesn't have much of a movie, because McKay's pitch-perfect impersonation is rather undermined by some stodgy storytelling and a disappointingly uneven collection of performances. It's the Me part of Me and Orson Welles that is the film's biggest problem, with erstwhile teen idol Zac Efron failing to convince in his step up to more serious roles. He plays theatre-mad Richard, who is wandering through the streets of New York one afternoon when he happens to find a crowd gathering outside the Mercury Theatre. Orson Welles is just about to stage his legendary Julius Caesar, and we get to see how it came together through the eyes of this awestruck 17 year-old.

If Linklater had chosen to focus
Me and Orson Welles solely on the Mercury production of Julius Caesar, then I would have been a very happy man indeed. After all, in Eddie Marsan (who plays John Houseman) and James Tupper (Joseph Cotton) he has two actors who are capable of going toe-to-toe with McKay's barnstorming Welles without looking like also-rans, and the story behind the production that helped cement Welles' reputation as a theatrical genius – as with most stories surrounding this man – is a fascinating one. There are times when the film manages to whip up some semblance of backstage magic, and these occasions normally feature McKay's Welles in full flow. As well as looking and sounding uncannily like the great man, McKay beautifully expresses the arrogance, charm, wit and rampaging ego of Welles. We see him capriciously altering stage directions and cutting scenes from the text; we see him telling various cast members that they're "God-created actors" one minute, and threatening to fire them the next. In short, we see him doing whatever it takes to bring his play, his vision, to the stage, and creating in the process an atmosphere of chaos, constantly teetering on the brink of destruction, which appeared to be a state that inspired him like no other.

So we've got Orson Welles directing
Julius Caesar – who the hell cares about the romantic longings of a soppy teenager? Yet Me and Orson Welles spends a considerable amount of time following Richard as he woos ambitious theatre assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), before facing the inevitable heartbreak. In the shadow of Welles, this storyline feels so insignificant that I was itching for Linklater to cut back to the main event every minute he spent away from it. Claire Danes is pretty and effective in a slim part, but Efron appears lost and incapable of registering any of the changes his character undergoes. Disappointingly, Linklater seems to take his cue from his young romantic lead rather than McKay, and his direction is uncharacteristically lifeless. Only in the depiction of Julius Caesar's nerve-wracking but triumphant opening night does he inject the film with some verve, and in these scenes the picture briefly captures just a hint of the electricity that must have filled the theatre that night. That's the only time Me and Orson Welles lives up to its subject, though. A potentially great story about burgeoning theatrical genius has been watered down into a dull coming-of-age tale – and dull is something that no film about this man, set during this period, should ever be.