Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Me & Orson Welles

Orson Welles is perhaps the single greatest "What if?" director in the history of Hollywood. After Citizen Kane, he found so much difficulty raising finances and even making movies the way he wanted to, it's torturous for any film lover to ponder what he could have done if he possessed all the resources and support he needed. Somehow the man who made what many critics and scholars consider the greatest film ever became known as unreliable and unbankable. Me and Orson Welles (2008) depicts Welles prior to his filmmaking career, but even then, his demands and perfectionism rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and alienated potential backers.

I must admit up front; I bring a lot of baggage to watching Me and Orson Welles because Welles is one of my favorite directors, and he had such a larger-than-life persona that even today I find dynamic. A movie that portrays him in a less-than-flattering light will have to work hard to earn my praise. The film also has another pre-existing handicap in my eyes: Zac Efron. I have nothing personal against Efron, but I've never found him distinguishable from any other teeny-bopper Disney star. I shouldn't be too hard on him because after all, Kurt Russell began his career as a Disney kid and went on to play Snake Pliskin. I should credit him for being in a movie like this.

The plot: in 1937, New York high-school student and aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron) somehow cons and impresses Orson Welles (Christian McKay) enough to cast him in the Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Richard finds Welles a demanding, temperamental, self-centered egomaniac but one with a brilliance and drive to him. The play opens in less than a week, and the future of the theater depends on its success. Trouble arises when Richard falls for Sonja Jones (Claire Daines) and doesn't grasp the politics of theater or that everyone must give into every demand of the director, whether on stage or in the bedroom.

Me and Orson Welles operates on two tracks: Richard's coming-of-age and growing romance with Sonja and the theater's efforts to put the play together. Watching the troupe work through challenges, both external (faulty equipment, time constraints) and internal (waiting for Welles to show up), is pretty neat, and it's cool seeing several other figures from Welles' life, such as Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). You really get involved with the camaraderie of the group and hoping to see them pull it off. The movie really takes off when we see re-enactments of the live performance. I wish there was more of this material.

Unfortunately, most of the film focuses on the other track. It's fairly low key and works in its own right, but I wanted more of the other stuff. Efron is okay; I wasn't distracted by his Disney past, but I thought he worked best as a guide into the troupe, discovering how it worked, but Richard is not an inherently interesting character, except for when he talks himself into getting a part in the play. The romance, while not terrible, is pretty bland. I liked Richard better when he was interacting with all the others, like Joseph Cotton, and learning more about them. Most of the movie's focus felt formulaic and obvious.

The film does have one great element: Christian McKay. He captures everything right from the voice, the mannerisms, the look, the energy, the egotism, the self-serving nature, and the vision. McKay embodies the role perfectly, and no one else is noticeable when he's on screen. It's a shame he didn't receive an Oscar nomination.

I can't deny I enjoyed the movie, particularly McKay's performance, but I don't feel it was all it could have been. The historical recreation is fine, but I would have liked more of it and more focus on the other characters. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the film, but I can say it was entertaining.

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