Monday, December 28, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

By Elise Nakhnikian

Do you want to see a movie set in America’s Great Depression that makes the era feel as real, and the characters’ feelings as urgent, as your own heartbeat? Rent Public Enemies.

Me and Orson Welles is the kind of movie that’s shot in golden-brown sepia from the first frame to the last, lest we forget for a moment that our story takes place in The Past. It’s the kind of script in which a young woman gazing at a Grecian urn in a museum recites Ode on a Grecian Urn aloud – and then tells our hero what she’s quoting, just in case anyone missed the reference. Even the sets and hair and makeup are too carefully engineered, from the shiny cars lining the streets to the impeccably clothed extras crossing self-consciously in front of the camera.

Based on a novel of the same name, Me and Orson Welles is set in New York City in 1937. Still a wunderkind, Welles (Christian McKay) hasn’t yet made the leap to directing movies, but he’s already a star on radio. And he’s about to open the Mercury Theater, where he will burnish his reputation as a theatrical director and actor.

The movie ushers us backstage at the Mercury with Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an enterprising local high school student who skips school to hang out at the Mercury. Good-looking and confident, he soon catches Welles’ eye and lands a minor role in the theater’s inaugural performance.

Me and Orson Welles is most alive when we’re inside the theater, watching the company bicker, rehearse, and then perform Welles’ inventive version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s interesting to see how Welles exploited, abused, and motivated his company, and often fun to watch the actors. Ben Chaplin is both laughable and touching as a high-strung, highly insecure actor. Eddie Marsan earns our respect as the long-suffering John Houseman, who managed the Mercury for the mercurial Welles. And every so often the whole ensemble clicks, making the cast’s neuroses, narcissism, and catty competition entertainingly believable.

But a few good scenes can’t carry a movie. My Favorite Year took another story of a high-maintenance theatrical genius as seen through the eyes of a starstruck young man and made it touching and funny, in part by playing the contrast between the dashing star and his young sidekick for laughs (who could forget Alan Swann’s dinner with Benjy’s family?) Me and Orson Welles falls into the same trap as Julie and Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, treating a callow sidekick as if he or she were as interesting as a savvy star, or more so.

Richard gets far more screen time than Welles, though the man is far more interesting than the boy can even dream of being. Outsized and outrageous, Welles attracts us in spite of ourselves, like iron filings to a magnet. McKay is too old for the part (he’s in his mid 30s, while Welles was just 21 in 1937), but he nails the actor-director’s resonant voice, penchant for bombast, and endless capacity to amuse himself, often at the expense of others. Most importantly, we see enough of the play he creates to know he’s the real thing, a genuine theatrical genius. That doesn’t excuse his boorish behavior, but it does make you wonder whether he, like the magazine editor in Prada, might have developed a monstrous carapace to protect a fragile creative ego.

Richard is just a kid, his ambitions too inchoate to be compelling. Welles tells him he’s “a God-created actor,” the kind you can’t help watching, but Efron doesn't earn that billing. The scenes of Richard at home or at school are uninteresting and unenlightening, telling us nothing we didn’t already know. And what a waste of potential to focus on his bland flirtation with the theater’s ambitious office manager, Sonja (Claire Danes) when we could be watching a world-class womanizer like Welles home in on his prey.

I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected so much more. Welles’ director, Richard Linklater, has a gift for making pungent slice-of-life movies – Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset – whose characters seem to have wandered into his frame from the street.

I like Linklater’s genre movies too – how could you not like School of Rock? – but what impresses me most is how he can take movie that are all talk, like Waking Life and the bookends of Sunrise and Sunset, and make them shimmer with intensity. Like few other living American directors, Linklater can capture the dorm-room thrill of smart conversation.

A talky love letter to great theater and the characters who make it should have been right up his alley, but somewhere between the conception and the execution, the blood got drained out of Me and Orson Welles. It comes to us DOA, a wax museum tableau shot through a tea-stained scrim.

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