ME AND ORSON WELLES, 2009
A teenager is cast in the Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar" directed by a young Orson Welles in 1937.
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Director Richard Linklater is becoming an increasingly difficult talent to pigeonhole. His filmography spans contemporary comedy not miles away from the likes of Chris Columbus and Ivan Reitman (School of Rock, for instance) through to bizarre graphic novella adaptations (A Scanner Darkly) to the mish-mashed post-modern brilliance of Slacker. Versatility, it seems, is Mr. Linklater’s forte, so it shouldn’t really be all that surprising to see him once again venture into new territory and helm a 1930’s drama-comedy adapted from a bestselling novel by Robert Kaplow which revolves around Orson Welles’ legendary production of ‘Julius Caesar’ at the Mercury Theatre.
Early marketing and press buzz for the film may lead you to believe that Me and Orson Welles is a purely straight-jacket affair, a no-nonsense drama serving as the perfect vehicle for the ever-popular Zac Efron to prove his worth as a ‘serious’ actor and escape from the shadows of Disney. Fortunately this is not the case, as whilst there is plenty of drama (of the most theatrical variety) present in Welles, it is also a film dominated by strong comedic performances and a wonderfully breezy, light-hearted tone which, whilst never stepping into the farcical hilarity of, say, Bullets over Broadway, still keeps everything consistently entertaining and frequently good for a laugh.
However, despite the wealth of talent on display, they are all overshadowed by a barnstorming, tour-de-force performance by relative Brit newcomer Christian McKay, in, remarkably, his first film appearance. As Orson Welles himself, McKay commands practically every scene he appears in – a hilarious, bombastic force of nature who fires people on a whim, rides in ambulances to travel quicker (“because there’s no law that says you have to be sick to ride in an ambulance”), flares into an artistic rage with very little provocation, and shamelessly womanises with practically any female who gets within arms reach. Not since Heath Ledger’s oscar-winning turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight has a supporting actor threatened to so completely dominate proceedings – and whilst it is not so severe as you feel his absence when he is not on-screen (Efron and the others do much too good a job to let that happen), you’re nonetheless constantly looking forward to his next appearance and the outrageous claims or bursts of arrogant genius that may follow.
It’s a good thing then, with so many strong performances, that the films script and Linklater’s direction are smart and tight enough to do justice to the talented cast and excellent source material. As with the novel, it is the brutal honesty of the world of aspiring talent in the entertainment industry which really rings true as the credits roll, and, whilst I don’t wish to spoil too much, I will at least say it is comforting to watch a film which does not auto-pilot to the expected Hollywood ending but rather something altogether more poignant and relevant.
Particular mention must also go to the visual effects team, costume and art department for their excellent work in recreating the period of 1930’s New York. As both Efron and Linklater pointed out at the preview screening where I saw the film, the Mercury theatre itself is no longer even in existence, and that style and era of New York, likewise, is long gone. Additionally, the film was shot almost entirely either on the Isle of Man or in Pinewood Studios, London, so the remarkable authenticity of New York as presented in the film is outstanding. The visual effects and production design are to such an exceptional standard that never once is it noticeable or distracting that you are watching a recreation or facsimile.
In fact, that same ethos and praise could be said of practically every element Me and Orson Welles, and is a fitting way to end this review – for whilst it is at times highly theatrical (though only in the manner intended) and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, it never feels false or constructed. A large, ensemble cast of highly capable talent give a broad range of brilliant performances, led by a career-best Zac Efron and show-stopping Christian McKay, and take us on a wonderful, whimsical journey to 1937, the Mercury Theatre, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the harsh realities of working in the world of drama and entertainment. It is a charming, supremely entertaining piece of work by a versatile and accomplished director, and definitely a film which deserves a lot of attention not only over Christmas by audience members, but in the New Year when Oscar members get their pens and paper at the ready.