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Review: Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater casts a spell
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 9, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

Me and Orson Welles | Directed by Richard Linklater | Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., based on the novel by Robert Kaplow | with Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan, Claire Danes, and Zoe Kazan | Cinemanx | 113 minutes
With Orson Welles, it's all in the voice — which over the course of four decades could sell anything from a Martian invasion to Paul Masson wine. Now when Christian McKay first shows up in Richard Linklater's adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel about the 21-year-old wunderkind's adaptation of Julius Caesar in 1938, he looks all wrong. Too old, too thin-lipped, too British — he resembles Oscar Wilde more than Orson Welles. Once he starts talking, though, he evokes the great auteur's spell, and the film emerges from a workmanlike backstage drama and an engaging coming-of-age story into an exhilarating and ambivalent celebration of genius.

Too bad, then, that we see McKay's Welles only indirectly, from the point of view of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a cocky, somewhat callow high-school student with ambitions that mirror Welles's own. Bored with his English-lit class, Richard takes his act to the street — which turns out to be right outside the new Mercury Theatre in Manhattan. Playing his own drumroll, Richard wins the favor of the great Welles, who probably recognizes in him a fellow humbug.

Julius Caesar is, of course, the tragedy of a hero murdered for overweening ambition, and Richard wins a spot not quite as a spear carrier but as Lucius, the dewy-faced manservant to Welles's Brutus. In a key scene (or so Welles pontificates), Lucius humanizes Brutus by charming him with a ballad backed by a lute (actually a tricked-up ukulele). Humanizing Welles off stage, though, proves another matter.

As usual, a woman is involved. It's not Gretta (Zoe Kazan, Elia's granddaughter), the dreamy New Yorker short-story aspirant who likes to recite Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" while gazing at an actual Grecian urn. She seems the more suitable match for Richard, but instead he's drawn to the older Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles's secretary, who's adept at coldly turning her looks, her wit, and her resourcefulness to her own purposes. The direction in which this is heading seems obvious, but Linklater keeps it unpredictable.

Linklater seldom makes the same type of film twice, but he's better at some than others. This period piece excels his previous effort in the genre, The Newton Boys — probably because putting on a play is more Linklater's style than robbing a bank. The detail of the '30s Manhattan setting may be perfunctory, but in this he mirrors Welles's own production, whose schematic set design, with its expressionistic lighting and rough-hewn props, evoked a nightmare world of contemporary totalitarianism. Also like Welles, Linklater nurtures the brilliant work of his supporting cast and crew (Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris and Eddie Marsan as John Houseman in particular).

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