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I am a huge fan of Tim Robbins’ film Cradle Will Rock. The cast is amazing, the story epic in scope, and the behind the scenes setting of the theatre and arts world is something I enjoy. So, when I saw that Richard Linklater had a new film at the Toronto International Film Festival and that it took place during Orson Welles’ run at the Mercury Theatre, I was very interested. Me and Orson Welles is based off a novel which creates a fictional character to be our entry point into the tumultuous world of Welles’ troupe, attempting to get a performance of Julius Caesar out the gate. Young Richard Samuels finds and cons his way into a small part with the play, meeting the likes of Joseph Cotton, George Coulouris, and Welles all before Citizen Kane made them Hollywood players. Much like how Girl With a Pearl Earring allows us a window into an artist’s life by surrounding a character with true history, Linklater does the same, bringing in familiar faces and names while talking about events occurring in the 1937 art scene. Centering on a more specific period of time, not sprawling out to multiple plotlines like Robbins’ opus, Me and Orson Welles is an authentic view of that time period, a veritable time capsule of Welles’ ego before he had the film industry in the palm of his hand.

If I had any trepidation coming in, it was the casting of Zac Efron as the lead role of Richard. Now I hate to have preconceptions, especially concerning things I don’t know about, but Efron was making me cringe when deciding if I should look past him and buy the ticket. I’ve never seen High School Musical or Hairspray, but just looking at the kid you can’t help but think nothing good could come of it. In my shocking surprise, he was actually quite good, and possibly perfect in the role. The entire film hinges on his believability as a cocky yet talented high schooler that talks his way onto a high profile performance while he should be taking pop quizzes. This teen is unafraid to speak his mind and truly believes that he deserves the same respect as anyone else on the project, even if that means standing up to the giant that is Orson Welles. He is a kid, though, and he’s naïveté comes out at numerous times, mostly to humorous effect. Embroiled in a five dollar bet with Cotton and Norman Lloyd about who can sleep with secretary Sonja first, when Richard’s chance finally happens, his shyness and awkwardness add a nice slapstick comedic feel. Efron actually has a good handle on his facial expressions, helping both effectively add to the comedy while also to the realism of the time period we are watching, as far as acting style went back then—over the top and hammy.

This kid becomes a big part of Welles’ life in the story. The master takes him under his wing to show the ropes of theatre, drama, and radio, grooming him with superfluities and compliments. What Richard doesn’t yet realize is the cutthroat nature of the industry and how everyone will lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants. The boy’s relationships blossom with the actors and Sonja, allowing him to comfortably make a name for himself in Broadway with them. He just can’t learn that sometimes you have to swallow your pride and give into someone who can’t to appease them and further your own career. Richard is young though and he doesn’t yet feel this is it for him, the end all be all. So, when some might think a brazen attitude and confidence could be a necessary trait in theatre, a man like Welles will have none of it. Why would a man like him want a mirror held up to his face? No, he is the leader and you will listen.

It is a shame that whenever someone is called upon to play Orson Welles, it always ends up being a caricature or impersonation. It is true with Angus Macfadyen in Cradle Will Rock and it is true here with newcomer Christian McKay, found in a one-man show doing the part and cast as a result. McKay is everything you’d think about with the legend, from the brash authoritative moods to the welcoming smiles charismatically pulling you in to do whatever he wants. Definitely more an embodiment of Welles himself than a performance of a character, you can’t really fault him for it. A man that recognizable can only be done with impression and McKay does it to perfection.

As for the rest of the cast, everyone is great. Eddie Marsan is a stalwart and nice practical foil to Welles’ mercurial genius; James Tupper knocks Joseph Cotton out of the park, playing a lothario that tries his best to shield Richard and help him stay in Welles’ good graces; Leo Bill is a lot of fun as the improviser/comedian Lloyd; and Claire Danes likable as the object of everyone’s affection Sonja. There is also Zoe Kazan as the writer Richard meets one day at a record shop. She is the one link he has to the real world, grounding him away from the chaos and narcissism the acting lifestyle brings. A real person, with goals and aspirations, her Gretta allows for the best relationship with Efron’s character. It is a side-plot that one could say needed to be beefed up, but I actually think comprised just the right amount of time. Only coming back into the story every so often, it was a necessary juxtaposition to the craziness in the theatre, showing us the real Richard and not the act he put on to be a success.

Writing this review has gotten me thinking now. After exiting the screening I was very mixed, knowing that it was very well made, but not quite seeing the big deal or what was so special about it. The story is slight even though there is a lot going on. I would even agree that Linklater has crafted such a tight piece it seems simpler than it is because he makes it so. Some instances are so good, the poet Sinner in the play slowly being surrounded by silhouetted actors onstage, that I can’t get the image out of my head. That said I might blame the fact I love Cradle Will Rock so much that this one just doesn’t quite compare. Me and Orson Welles is a great film, highly recommended, but to me nothing glaringly special. It’s just one of those films that I can praise over and over again for its parts, but when I think of the whole, realize that it never fully resonated with me past being a well-made, well-acted piece of cinema.

Me and Orson Welles 7/10

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photography:
[1] Zac Efron (“Richard Samuels ”) and Claire Danes (“Sonja Jones”) in “Me and Orson Welles”. Dir Richard Linklater. Copyright CinemaNX Films One Ltd 2008
[2] Christian McKay (“Orson Welles”) in “Me and Orson Welles”. Dir Richard Linklater. Copyright CinemaNX Films One Ltd 2008

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