Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles *** ½
Directed by:
Richard Linklater.
Written By: Holly Gent Palmo & Vincent Palmo Jr. based on the novel by Robert Kaplow.
Starring: Zac Efron (Richard Samuels), Claire Danes (Sonja Jones), Christian McKay (Orson Welles), Ben Chaplin (George Coulouris), Zoe Kazan (Gretta Adler), Eddie Marsan (John Houseman), Kelly Reilly (Muriel Brassler), James Tupper (Joseph Cotton), Leo Bill (Norman Lloyd).

There has never been, and never will be, someone quite like Orson Welles. He was a man of great contradictions and genius. He had huge appetites for women, and later in life for food. He demanded, and received, absolute loyalty from the people who worked with him. He was an egomaniac and often difficult to work with. He has a man you both loved and hated. He had such a supreme confidence about himself, that even when he drove his people crazy, they stuck by him. Why? Because everyone could tell his genius. If you stuck with Orson, you may go through hell, but you were going to be a part of something that would be remembered forever.

I have seen Welles portrayed by many actors over the year. Vincent D’Onfrio probably did the best job in his cameo roles in Ed Wood. Liev Scheiber and Angus McFadyen tried valiantly in RKO 281 and Cradle Will Rock respectively, and did a decent job, but didn’t quite pull it off. Maurice LaMarche does a killer Welles impression, that he has used in animated shows like The Simpsons and The Critic. And I will always remember Jim Cummings brilliant voice work on an episode of Pinky and the Brain, which mocked Welles’ infamous frozen pea ad.

In Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles though, Christian McKay outdoes them all. He looks uncannily like a young Orson Welles, and his has perfected Welles speech patterns. There are times in this movie, usually small moments when McKay simply smiles, when I swore that I was looking at the real Welles. But McKay’s performance is more than just genetics and impersonation; he embodies Welles, and all his contradictions, perfectly. You cannot help but love the guy even when he goes off on one of his unreasonable tirades, yelling at whoever happens to be around him at that moment. It is, in short, one of the best performances I have ever seen by an actor playing an iconic figure from the past.

The movie that surrounds this towering performance is pleasant enough. Young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) comes to New York one day, and ends up in front of the Mercury theater, where by pure happenstance, he ends up being cast in the small role of Lucious in Welles now infamous stage production of Julius Caesar. The movie concentrates on Richard, his struggles to try and learn how to play the ukulele (that will be disguised as a lute, and which he’ll have to serenade Welles’ Brutus in a key scene), and his relationship with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a kind of girl Friday for the Mercury theater. Everyone in the cast wants Sonja, but it is Richard that she warms to. There is something sweet and innocent about him and his come ons that contrast him to the rest of the cast – especially Joseph Cotton (James Tupper, who also looks uncannily like his real life counterpart), who just wants another notch on his belt.

Linklater is a talented director, and he gives Me and Orson Welles the proper period details, and keeps the story moving along rapidly. Efron, in his first real role, does a fine job as Samuels, and Danes is cute and believable as Sonja. It’s not their fault that whenever they are on screen, we long to get back to McKay’s Welles. Me and Orson Welles is a solid movie all around – lightweight, enjoyable, but it is McKay’s performance that makes it a must see movie. It’s one of the best performances of the year.

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