ME AND ORSON WELLES (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2009)
To be a young actor in the hustling bustling Big Apple of the 30's, cast by sheer chance as a player in an Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production is a dream many aspiring thespians have no doubt had, but is it believable that it would be a dream shared by "it" boy Zac Efron?
Sadly no, he's a blank slate of an actor who makes for a weak protagonist, but this period piece by cult director Richard Linklater is royally saved by Christian McKay's pitch perfect performance as the genius wunderkind Welles. It's a role he was seemingly born to play thanks to his uncanny likeness and delivery honed from over half a decade on stage in the one man show "Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles".
As a wide eyed high school student, Efron is overjoyed to be cast in the small but crucial role of Lucious in Welles' controversial 1937 production of "Julius Caesar". It was controversial because Welles staged Shakespeare's play as contemporary commentary outfitting his performers in modern dress - specifically uniforms that resembled those of the Nazi party.
Efron is paired with a production assistant played by Claire Danes as a rehearsal partner and immediately falls for her. He also falls for the world of the theater; a world that Welles rules with a mighty swagger. McKay's Welles highjacks the film from Efron and breathes life into the predictable proceedings with every entrance. His powerful presence not only makes us forget Efron is in the room, it helps us forget he's in the movie.
When McKay isn't on screen the film suffers from the lack of chemistry between Danes and Efron and the simplistic nature of their relationship. It's funny (or more accurately damaging) that the excellent casting of McKay would be offset by the misguided miscasting of Efron. Luckily other members of the cast fare much better - James Tupper as a the wise witty Joseph Cotton, Eddie Marsan as the exasperated John Houseman, and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris who has an effective scene dealing with stage fright right before going on as Marc Antony.
Linklater has one of the most intriquing and diverse filmographies of any working director out there. Since his brilliant breakthrough SLACKER (1991) his work has gone from indie (BEFORE SUNRISE) to mainstream (THE SCHOOL OF ROCK) and back again (BEFORE SUNSET) with mostly successful results.
Linklater's previous period piece effort, THE NEWTON BOYS, was one of his only major stumbles so it's wonderful to report ME AND ORSON WELLES is absolutely a superior and more assured work in the same arena.
The brisk pacing and solid structure show off Linklater's strengths as do the astute recreations of the original stage show - at times I wished the film would throw out the backstage bickering and just give us the play "Julius Caesar" in full.
Although my reaction to Efron and the presentation of the love triangle arc is decidedly mixed, this is still a worthwhile movie largely because of McKay. His Welles definitely deserves an Oscar nomination and that's quite a compliment considering that this is his first film.
A best-case scenario would be that HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL fans that follow Efron will see it and they'll walk away under the spell of McKay. I know that's just wishful thinking, but it sure would be nice for all those teenyboppers to actually get a whiff of what real acting is all about.
Post note: Christian McKay appeared previously on this blog in a post entitled "A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes" (May 5th, 2008). He would definitely rank much higher if I did the list today.