Reviews: Me and Orson Welles

28 November 2009

Me and Orson Welles

With the release out this week in the US and next in the UK, we see more and more new reviews. You can find earlier reviews from last year’s TIFF here (professional reviews including Hollywoodreporter, Variety & Screen Daily reviews) and here (more private blogs etc), and SXSW’s are here.

New Yorker, David Denby, 30 November 2009 (published online 23 November 2009)

Me and Orson Welles

The lips are wrong. Well, at any rate, they’re different: thin and pursed rather than fleshy and cherubic. But Christian McKay, the thirty-six-year-old British actor who plays the young Orson Welles in “Me and Orson Welles,” has the necessary stature and the vaunting authority for the job. McKay has an easy way with a cigar, too, and a small, sly smile and a strong voice. Not that voice, with its sonic-boom impact, but a fine, leathery instrument. “I am Orson Welles!” he thunders, when challenged. “I own the store.” The year is 1937, when the great man is twenty-two. The newly formed Mercury Theatre, under the joint direction of Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), is mounting its first production in New York—a heavily cut and rearranged version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with the characters dressed in the uniforms and long coats of the Italian Fascists. We see Welles through the eyes of a cocky seventeen-year-old, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a New Jersey kid who bluffs his way into the company. Richard Linklater, the director, and Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, the screenwriters (who adapted Robert Kaplow’s 2003 novel of the same title), create a bond between the boy and the theatre big shot. Welles recognizes Samuels as a fellow-mover, and, for a frantic week, as the production lurches toward opening night, the two of them take each other’s measure. It’s a drastically unequal contest. Welles plays Brutus in the production, but his will is closer to Caesar’s. He seduces and bullies everyone, drops actors from the script at will, exercises droit du seigneur over the women in the company, and, in general, acts as if he were God incarnate, which, for all practical purposes, he is. The actors and the craftsmen admire him, loathe him, and know that they couldn’t have theatrical careers of comparable magnitude without him—all New York awaits the opening.

The plot, unfortunately, is conventionally conceived: Richard gets initiated into sex and other fascinating and complicated rites of the grownup world; that is, he gets warmed and then burned by people more experienced and ruthless than anyone could be at seventeen. We’ve seen this rueful coming-of-age story before. And we’ve seen other movies about the staging of a famous production. But if “Me and Orson Welles” isn’t as witty as “Shakespeare in Love,” which, after all, had a script shined up by Tom Stoppard, it’s much better than “Cradle Will Rock,” Tim Robbins’s 1999 account of another legendary early Welles project, a movie with too many characters and too narrow a view (i.e., orthodox left) of the relation of money and art. The strength of “Me and Orson Welles” is that it sticks to Welles’s actual production and to the life of a new theatre company. This is a movie of great spirit and considerable charm. It’s about the giddiness of promise—the awakening of young talent, after years of the Depression, to a moment when anything seems possible.

Working with a limited budget, Linklater found a vintage theatre on the Isle of Man which doubles for the Mercury, on West Forty-first Street (formerly the Comedy, and now long gone); he and his crew reconstructed nineteen-thirties-style New York exteriors at Pinewood Studios, outside London, and assembled a decent cast to support McKay. As Samuels, Zac Efron, the dancing teen heartthrob and shirtless Internet sensation, is surprisingly winning. Efron draws on his confident good looks (from certain angles, this Jewish hoofer from California looks like, of all people, Tyrone Power) without being smug. He’s an actor, after all—maybe even a genuine star. And the even better-looking Claire Danes, of the foot-wide smile, achieves something difficult as Welles’s secretary, Sonja Jones, a friendly and likable woman whose ambition is nevertheless so ravenous that she can’t be trusted for a second. There are many minor characters, swiftly and easily drawn. Linklater, the director of “Slackers,” “School of Rock,” and many other movies, usually works with pop culture; this is his first foray into the classics. Quippy, fast, and enjoyably corny, “Welles” is like a musical comedy without songs. The music is mostly swing hits from the period, along with Marc Blitzstein’s martial drums-and-brass score for the original production, which is played (with the musicians missing many cues) throughout the film.

As opening night nears, Richard’s adventures are of secondary interest, and we welcome with relish the movie’s returning again and again to Welles. He carries on like a much older man—Henry Irving, for example, or some other flamboyant, groundbreaking actor-manager of the nineteenth century, who raised money, edited texts, designed sets, starred in many of the productions, and kept the company going. But Welles has a modernist temperament and a subversive love of shock. He’s abrasive, treacherous, boastful, and inconstant, blocking and reblocking the show at the last minute. At first, this bombast, no matter how amusing, feels too broadly vociferous. Then it becomes clear that Linklater and McKay are portraying Welles as a man who’s consciously entertaining and stimulating his company, playing the black-hearted son of a bitch, creating a crisis atmosphere so that he can pull everything together at the last minute and save the day. What reconciles us to him, and also compels the actors, including Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), to stay with him, is his theatrical intelligence. Welles directs as he acts, moving people around between lines, getting them to lower or raise their voices or shape a phrase in a different way. He’s like a conductor who points out mistakes while pushing the music forward. And when opening night finally arrives, and we get to see chunks of the production, the old radical theatre ideas still have power. The stage is bare, the back wall a rust red, the violence frightening, and the audience stunned. For moviegoers, however, the triumph is bittersweet. A theatrical performance can be altered and revised until just before the curtain rises, but a movie, with its thousands of interlocking details, requires long-range planning, consistency, and reliability. In Welles’s rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory of 1937, one sees the habits that will lead not only to a few peerless films but also to many defeats and tragically abandoned projects.

Huffington Post/Hollywood & Fine, Marshall Fine, 23 November 2009:

Movie Review: Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” is pure delight, a backstage story set in a romantic period built around a magically charismatic character.

It’s also the movie that proves that Zac Efron is a real actor, not just a teen star with a solid singing voice and a dazzling smile. As the ‘Me’ in the title, he holds his own against the dashing figure of Orson Welles. And this is Welles near the peak of his youthful genius, played with eerie proximity and great humor by newcomer Christian McKay, in what may be the year’s most auspicious film debut.

Set in 1937, “Me and Orson Welles” features Efron as Richard, a theater-struck high-school student who spends his after-school hours roaming the music stores and theatrical marquees of Manhattan. His rambling brings him to the front of the Mercury Theater, Welles’ fledgling troupe, as the actors gather on the sidewalk to see its sign lit for the first time.

Richard quickly ingratiates himself with Welles and winds up cast in a small role in Welles’ imminent production of “Julius Caesar,” after lying about his ability to play the ukulele. Suddenly he’s in a Broadway show, taken under the wing of the company manager, Sonja (Claire Danes) and the new favorite of the mercurial, blustering and seductive Welles.

Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, “Me and Orson Welles” is about heroes, genius, innocence, growing up and, of course, the theater. As played by Efron, Richard is confident and nervy, too young to know better about some things, but a fast learner – a kindred spirit in whom Welles may see a younger version of himself. Richard has the resilience of youth and can absorb the lessons Welles teaches him without taking the accompanying insults personally.

He’s a hustler with enough innate smarts and game to also capture the attention of Sonja, with whom he becomes emotionally involved and in over his head. Efron can play young and heartsick and still find the humor in the pain; as Richard, he’s an unexpected romantic who learns some serious lessons about love in the adult world and its occasionally pragmatic nature.

Danes has the perfect blend of charm, warmth and common sense as Sonja, who understands what she’s doing as she sleeps her way toward a break in show business. She’s self-aware, an empowered woman who has figured out how to get where she needs to be.

The real find here is McKay, whose Orson Welles nearly effervesces on screen. He has the music of Welles’ voice tuned perfectly, capable of shifting tones with a thought. The right blend of ego, genius and childishness gives this Welles the life and potential of the man who is still marinating “Citizen Kane” and the “War of the Worlds” broadcast somewhere in his brain.

“Me and Orson Welles” captures an American original at a seminal moment in his creative life. His best work still lay ahead of him and he had yet to run up against the hard wall of studio indifference and control that would flummox him for much of his career. Linklater’s film captures the sheer force of will by which Welles created theatrical history, seemingly while doing three other things at the same time.

It would be nice if Efron’s “High School Musical” fans follow him to this new film – and discover Welles in the process. Even if they don’t embrace Welles, they’ll still find a film that uses its solid wit and intelligence to expand beyond the confines of the romantic comedy. They’ll discover a film that explores questions about how being touched by the muse in the right way at the right time can change your life.

Backstage, Pete Hammond , 19 November 2009

Me and Orson Welles

In the vein of “My Favorite Year,” this historical fiction set in 1937 focuses on a wide-eyed teen named Richard (Zac Efron) who lucks into a role in the newly founded Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” directed by none other than a very young, but still bigger-than-life, Orson Welles (Christian McKay). But what sets “Me and Orson Welles” apart from a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story is its convincing and loving look at the world of New York City theater at that time and the emergence of a major talent. Set in the week leading up to the opening of the play, this small gem of a movie, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from the Robert Kaplow novel and directed by Richard Linklater, alternates between a backstage look at the creative process and an amusing love triangle among the overbearing Welles, his ambitious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), and Richard, the love-struck, theater-struck young teen whose life will never be the same after this experience.

Although the personal story of the kid attempting to woo the older Sonja is compelling, this film is dominated by the presence of Welles in his pre-prime and the Mercury Theatre company he created. General audiences should appreciate it, but actors will devour this tale that is at its heart a love letter to the stage. The staging of “Julius Caesar” is remarkable and brilliantly pulled off.

Central to the film’s success is British actor McKay, who gets every nuance of what you’d imagine Welles would be like in a performance so dead-on you would swear the ghost of Orson was lurking in the wings. McKay, discovered for the role while he was doing a one-man show Off-Broadway called “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles,” obviously had experience playing the great man, but McKay’s achievement here is taking a theatrical approach and dialing it way down to make it work on film. With Linklater’s guidance, McKay turns this Orson into a mad but human genius who knows what he wants and knows exactly how to get it. It’s an extraordinary pitch-perfect interpretation that goes way beyond mere mimicry and travels into art.

Efron, shedding his “High School Musical” persona, is likable, engaging, and totally relatable as the idealistic teen who is led by his heart into a world he isn’t quite ready for. Danes, as usual, delivers a believable portrait of a nice young woman with shades of gray and a desire to move her career forward with whatever it may take. A superb ensemble of stage actors is played by a superb ensemble of film actors—among them James Tupper, wonderful as Joseph Cotten; Kelly Reilly as Orson’s temperamental leading lady; Ben Chaplin, terrific as a dour English actor George Coulouris; and Zoe Kazan as a precocious aspiring writer. Special kudos to Eddie Marsan, who nails the young Welles collaborator John Houseman.

Treat yourself to “Me and Orson Welles,” a must-see for movie lovers and theater aficionados of every stripe.

Orlando Sentinel, Roger Moore, 20 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

He swaggered, an outsize personality who filled a room figuratively decades before he did it literally.

Labeled a “genius” in childhood, damned if he didn’t spend his 20s proving that to be the case – and how.

“Me and Orson Welles” is a coming-of-age comedy built around the “Me,” a star-struck theater lover winningly played by Zac Efron. But it’s a movie dominated by Orson Welles – “tyro” and “enfant terrible” of the American theater.

Richard Linklater’s affectionate homage to the man who would go on to scare America witless with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast and then re-invent the cinema with “Citizen Kane” is a movie-lover’s delight. Linklater, thanks to a brilliant, sly and self-aware turn by Christian McKay, reminds us what all the fuss over Orson is all about.

Efron is Richard, a would-be thespian going to high school in the greater New York of the 1930s. He stumbles into the Great Orson on his way to rehearse his legendary production of “Julius Caesar,” which Welles re-set in modern fascist Italy.

Welles is a pathological flatterer, nicknaming the kid “Gielgud” and “the ukulele player.” He needs an actor who can sing and play a uke for a scene opposite his own turn as Brutus. Richard becomes an eye-witness to theater history as the show comes together, and he falls, hard, for the “older woman” office manager (Claire Danes).

McKay has the Welles twinkle, his bluster and confidence, a man so talented he can improvise a better monologue on the radio than the one his “The Shadow” scriptwriters wrote. He blurts out “I’m starving,” just the way Welles did in “Citizen Kane,” and charms charms charms.

Equally fine are actors playing other members of Welles’ Mercury Theater. Eddie Marsan is terrific as a Romanian immigrant who faked a British accent and became John Houseman, Welles’ right-hand man in those years. Ben Chaplin is an arrogant and highly-strung George Coulouris and James Tupper makes a dapper, randy and world-wise Joseph Cotton.

Efron fits neatly into all this, a wide-eyed innocent trying to grow up too fast, hold his own in sex banter with the boys and not fail in front of the imposing Welles, who seduces and thunders at one and all in pursuit of his vision.

“LOUDER! This isn’t a school play!”

Linklater holds our interest even working within the boundaries of an overly familiar “that’s when I grew up” story. For serious cinema buffs, he does even more than that, giving us a peek at what working for a true giant of the arts must have been like – thrilling, exasperating and – above all – fun.

Three and a half stars out of four

New York Observer, Rex Reed , 23 November 2009:

Who knew Zac Efron could act?

Me and Orson Welles

Crowded into the cinematic sardine can of year-end releases, Me and Orson Welles is a modest but gigantically charming jewel that deserves rapt attention. Witty, wise, warm and unfailingly entertaining, it’s one of the year’s happiest surprises. And who knew Zac Efron could act?

In this lovable period valentine to the arts, the teen heartthrob displays a depth and charm that nobody over the age of 14 would ever have suspected; it’s above and beyond anything he’s shown before, in pukey, overhyped junk like High School Musical. Although he looks more like a college student than a callow high-schooler, Mr. Efron plays a stage-struck 17-year-old named Richard Samuels, who accidentally lucks into a job with Orson Welles’ legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, pared down to 90 minutes and performed in modern dress on a bare Broadway stage with everyone wearing the fascist uniforms of Nazi Germany. It’s a year until Welles’ “Invasion from Mars,” which terrified an entire nation of radio listeners, and several years before Citizen Kane, but his mad, eccentric genius in the making was already obvious. What fun to watch theater history through the eyes of an innocent teenage bystander. At first he thinks he’s just another anonymous spear carrier in the crowd scenes, but since Welles was famous for improvising everything on the spot, Richard ends up in the small role of Lucius, playing a ukulele and singing a lullaby to Brutus (played by Welles himself) before the final battle. Craving the star-director’s approval, he gets a close-up of his rampaging backstage ego, as Welles shoves his pregnant wife Virginia into the background while seducing every actress involved in the production. The challenges of working for Orson Welles (Christian McKay, in an inspired performance) grow too intense for a nice young man to overcome, especially when he’s cutting school to attend rehearsals, and then there’s the additional strain of falling in love with Sonja Jones (beautifully played by Claire Danes), the creative lunatic’s bright, ambitious Girl Friday whose can-do personality endears her to everyone, including the critics. (Brooks Atkinson sends her roses.) After Richard loses his virginity to the delectable Sonja, the eventual clash between talented bit player and his demented mentor becomes inevitable. Richard is so gullible that he actually thinks he’s getting $25 a week and a chance to join Actors’ Equity, until Sonja explains: “You’re not getting anything—except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit.”

The film moves from Broadway to the backstage action at the CBS radio show where Orson’s mellifluous voice paid the bills; at one point he races through the snow in an ambulance to beat the traffic. The impressionable Richard, meanwhile, is plunged into a firsthand exposure to the theater by a madman with a monstrous ego. Along the way, we meet the actual players in the Mercury troupe—including Joseph Cotten, Martin Gabel, George Coulouris, and producer John Houseman. Names are dropped relentlessly: Tallulah, Gielgud, Richard Rodgers, Jed Harris, David O. Selznick. Based on Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel about the wayward Julius Caesar production, it leaves no stone unturned—including the hilarious dress-rehearsal matinee in which everything goes wrong; the flooding of the theater hours before the opening-night curtain; and the astonishing reviews, which, to everyone’s astonishment, pronounced the show a titanic smash hit! In a deceptively simple script, skillfully written by Holly Gent Palmo, several themes emerge, but the most durable is the reiteration that in the theater, magic happens when it’s least expected.

As Richard grows from starry-eyed fan to calloused veteran with eyes wide open, he gets a crash course in the joy, cruelty and heartbreak of Broadway. With its story of a naïve, impressionable and idealistic young man who learns too much too soon from a cynical, eccentric master, the movie shares obvious similarities with My Favorite Year. But the look of New York on the eve of World War II and the actual recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and the many others who made the period come alive musically lend an air of thrilling authenticity I didn’t think possible from oddball filmmaker Richard Linklater. Hopefully, it will attract a more sophisticated audience for this unpredictable director than the small, narrow gang of followers who like his slacker comedies and druggie cartoons. What he has done with Zac Efron is nothing short of dazzling, but the real revelation is Christian McKay, who captures in hair-raising detail the self-centered, egotistical mannerisms, contradictory vocal inflections and flamboyant behavior of the phenomenon known as Orson Welles.

New York Times, A. O. Scott, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles (2009)

When a Bombastic Young Man Bestrode the Boards of the Mercury Theater

The action in “Me and Orson Welles” takes place in 1937 during a single hectic week bookended by two moments of relative tranquillity in which a boy (Zac Efron) meets a girl (Zoe Kazan). In the film’s final scene, as they stroll out of the New York Public Library, the girl, an aspiring writer, bubbles with enthusiasm about the world of music, art and literature that seems to be opening up all around them. So much is going on! So much to be part of!

Though specific in its period references — the musical choices in particular are fresh and precise — this movie is much more than an exercise in nostalgia for those storied old days, when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker, Orson Welles bestrode the boards of the Mercury Theater and Brooks Atkinson reviewed plays for The New York Times.

Instead, “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater, with a screenplay (from Robert Kaplow’s novel) by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, pays tribute to youthful creative ambition where and whenever it may thrive. The story of a teenager’s sometimes uncomfortable brush with greatness, it is necessary viewing for anyone whose imagination has been seduced by the charms of art.

Which can be a painful, disillusioning experience as well as a source of exhilaration. This, at any rate, is what Richard, Mr. Efron’s character, discovers when he stumbles into the Mercury’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by a bombastic young fellow who lends his name to the film’s title and to so much else besides. “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane” are still in the future, as are the triumphs and brutal disappointments of Welles’s postwar career, but the ego and the brilliance are in full blossom.

They are captured, with a brio and wit that puts most biopic mummery to shame, by Christian McKay, a British actor with a slender résumé and superhuman confidence. His evident relish in the dimensions of this role is a crucial part of the performance. It’s so much fun to play Orson Welles because it must have been at least as much fun to be Orson Welles.

Though perhaps not to work with him. “Me and Orson Welles” spends most of its time backstage at the Mercury, as the cast and crew struggle and stumble toward opening night, alternately buoyed and sandbagged by their resident genius, who is not shy about reminding the company members that they are servants to his vision. He showers them with hyperbolic praise — seeing “images of magnificence” in every actor’s eyes — and then crushes them with brutal criticism.

His loyal partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), endures it all with amused resignation. The others humor Welles, complain about him, try to compete with him or go to bed with him. They are supporting players in the grand drama of his personality. The only peer he might recognize on the set of “Julius Caesar” is Shakespeare himself.

In that production Welles played Brutus — a complicated character, both noble and treacherous. And “Me and Orson Welles” shows him in similarly shaded light, illuminating both his talent and his caddishness. Best of all, the movie allows us to glimpse enough of the rehearsal and performance to see just why the Mercury “Caesar” was a milestone in the history of the modern theater.

Art is glorious. The making of art less so. Richard, cast almost by accident in a minor role, learns some hard lessons about the ways of show folk, for whom sincerity is a higher form of pretending. He befriends Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), marvels at George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), the high-strung British actor playing Mark Antony, and falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), who manages the Mercury and dreams of meeting David O. Selznick.

Sonja is both ingénue and woman of the world, at once a servant of the muse and a calculating careerist, and Ms. Danes is nimble, likable and smart — words that describe the movie itself. While Mr. Efron may not conjure images of magnificence, he does well as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and affable adventurer in the enchanted realm of the theater.

Disenchantment is part of the magic, and “Me and Orson Welles” strikes a persuasive balance between naïveté and cynicism, both of which are necessary to the theatrical enterprise. Art is a fairy tale we choose to believe in, and this movie, a fiction confected about real people, is too good not to be true.

Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is an amiable period-piece showbiz comedy set in 1937, when Welles, then 22, first blasted his way into the orbit of fame with his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. There’s one great reason to see the movie, and that’s Christian McKay’s performance as Welles. He looks just like him — the boy-man face rounded out with a little too much baby fat, the eyes that twinkle with all-knowing charm. And McKay does an altogether uncanny impersonation of Welles the debonair egomaniac, who cut a swath through the Broadway world of stunned producers and leggy chorus girls. McKay gets that melting-butter voice to a T, and he makes the energy of Welles’ genius contagious.

I wish I could say that the whole film was that good. Linklater has framed the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the premiere of Julius Caesar as the story of a naive young actor who talks his way into Welles’ stock company. But Zac Efron, who plays this bushy-tailed rube, is mostly a cute blank here; when he woos the Mercury Theatre’s secretary (Claire Danes), we seem to have landed in one of Woody Allen’s more halfhearted fables. Except for McKay, Me and Orson Welles has so little fire that Welles himself would have wondered out loud what he was doing stuck in the middle of it. B-

Rolling Stone, Peter Travers, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

What do you say about a movie that proves Zac Efron can act, introduces a master thespian in Christian McKay and launches a charm assault that is damn near irresistible? I say, see it. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) has crafted a thrilling movie about, of all things, the theater. The time is 1937, the place is New York, and boy wonder Orson Welles (McKay) is rehearsing a modern-dress production of Julius Caesar that will set him on the path to legend.

Linklater goes right at the exhilaration of it — you can practically breathe the air of the Mercury Theatre — leaving the grand gestures to Welles. British actor McKay plays the man who would be Citizen Kane in a miraculous act of physical and vocal transformation surpassed only by the way he seems to dig deep into Welles’ conflicted soul. Wow.

Efron takes a more oblique approach, and it pays off handsomely. As Richard Samuels, the only fictional character in the book by Robert Kaplow, from which Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo have carved a dexterous script, Richard is our eyes and ears into Welles’ world. Only 17, Richard blunders into a meeting with the then-22-year-old genius, wins a small role in the play, gets seduced by an ambitious assistant, Sonja (a deceptively perky Claire Danes), and falls under the spell of everything theatrical Welles builds with producing partner John Houseman (the great Eddie Marsan).

The film brims with wonderful turns from actors playing actors — James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd, Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris. But what makes the movie stick, besides Linklater’s pitch-perfect direction, is the way McKay and Efron handle the seduction and betrayal of Richard by Welles. The treachery is sweetly done, of course, but it leaves its mark. Just like the movie.

CinemaBlend, Tim Gomez, 23 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles Review

I’ll come right out and say it: Richard Linklater is better than Me and Orson Welles. Sure, the indie superstar and inspiration to many a director (including Kevin Smith) is responsible for quite a few mainstream movies, but none have ever been so boring and lifeless as this film. School of Rock had Jack Black and a group of endlessly loveable kids. His Bad News Bears remake was surprisingly competent and true to the original. And of course, Dazed and Confused is a staple of the high school stoner genre. Unfortunately, Me and Orson Welles has none of the great things that made Linklater’s more accessible features so interesting.

The flick centers on Richard (Zac Efron), a high school kid with a knack for acting and the arts, who happens upon The Mercury Theatre where Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar is being prepared. By showing off his drum playing skills, Richard catches the eye of Welles himself, who gives the kid a role in his play as Lucius, Caesar’s servant. Here, we meet Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ assistant, a hard-to-get beauty who is chased by the entire cast but immediately has an eye for the young Richard.

The rest of the film follows the week leading up to the opening of the play as seen through Richard’s eyes, as he witnesses the sometimes genius, sometimes manic, always unfaithful and unreliable habits of Orson Welles (Christian McKay). During this time, Richard begins to fall for Sonja, who seems just as interested but in a somewhat less serious fashion. We see the trials and tribulations of a work directed by Welles, an auteur to the extent of being a control freak. He rarely gives credit where credit is due, rarely shows love for his actors even when they need it most, and argues extensively about minute details such as which step an actor should stand on. But this is the genius of Orson Welles, and he knows damn well that love can only come after success.

Me and Orson Welles ultimately fails because it centers on its two least appealing characters. Perhaps if a more competent young actor played Richard, the role would seem livelier and more interesting. Instead, Efron rarely sounds comfortable reciting his lines and only once or twice seems believable. You’d think a seasoned veteran like Claire Daines would be able to bring better game to the flick, but even she strikes out, playing Sonja lifelessly, never allowing us to fall in love with her or hate her when the time comes. Sonja is role meant for a sassier, more versatile actress, a girl with far more personality than Daines seems capable of showing.

The shining light in Me and Orson Welles ends up being Christian McKay. McKay’s portrayal of Welles, though not perfect, gives the film the blood that its lead actors fail to give. Every time he enters a room, a sort of wave is felt throughout the theatre, as though the audience has been collectively poked with a stick. We see Welles in all his womanizing, conniving and beautifully artistic glory. When he does wrong, we feel it, and when he loves, we feel it even more.

McKay isn’t the film’s only saving grace, though. Most of the second act is strong, as we follow the main preparations for Julius Caesar, the conflict between Sonja and Richard (the only moment where Efron shows some ability), and the opening night of the play. It’s as though the actors and the writers took their time getting started then found their stride about two thirds through. Seeing the vast intricacies of a theatre production (especially one lead by Orson) along with a reenactment of Welles’ now legendary interpretation of Julius Caesar is a wonder on screen.

It’s a struggle to get through the beginning and end of Me and Orson Welles. This may be an editing problem, but it may also be Richard. It’s hard to care for Richard’s struggle to become an actor and woo an older woman (there’s also a minor subplot that involves Richard and a cute, modest writer). It’s harder to care about Sonja and her shallow intentions. If Orson were an ensemble piece that focused on the lives of the cast members or even only on Orson, it would’ve been more successful. Instead, Richard Linklater’s talent never shines through, as he’s forced to focus on lame characters, while placing everything interesting in the background. But something good comes out of all of this. Me and Orson Welles definitely makes you want to revisit Citizen Kane.

ReelViews, James Berardinelli, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles is about the theater, or at least the theater as it was in the 1930s. Based on the semi-fictional novel by Robert Kaplow and set in New York City around the time of the opening of the Mercury Theater, the film is rich in period detail. It chronicles not only how Welles put together his now-famous stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar but how it was to work around and with the temperamental genius. In a departure from his usual intimate, character-based fare, director Richard Linklater paints on a broad cinematic canvas that brings Depression-era Broadway vividly to life.

The lead character is aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a teenager who is picked by Welles (Christian McKay) to appear in Julius Caesar even before he graduates from high school. Welles, however, is a notoriously difficult boss. One moment, he is cruel and dismissive. The next, he acts like a mentor, bringing Richard with him to a radio studio and allowing him to observe as Welles improvises lines in a live audio play. Since Richard’s role as Lucillus is relatively minor, the young performer is given ample time to observe the behind-the-scenes goings-on at the Mercury. Two famous actors, Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), are involved in the production, and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) is Welles’ partner in the business side of the venture. For Richard, however, the Mercury’s real attraction, aside from the opportunity to work with Welles, is Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’ secretary. He pursues her with the dogged single-mindedness of a young man in love.

In a courageous move, Linklater devotes the better part of the film’s final half-hour to exacting re-creations of scenes from Julius Caesar, providing a view of how the play might have looked on Opening Night. There’s not enough of the play for someone unaware of its general trajectory to understand what’s happening, but those who have seen or read it will be able not only to follow the excerpts but be able to understand the uniqueness of Welles’ vision. The unfortunately downside of this approach is that it narrows the target audience considerably.

The ostensible star is Zac Efron, who chose this role as an opportunity to step far away from the parts that have made him famous. (It’s difficult to imagine many members of his core audience enjoying Me and Orson Welles.) His heartthrob status effectively submerged, Efron is solid although unspectacular. It’s difficult to see it when Welles calls Richard a “natural born actor,” but Efron’s performance is workmanlike and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Likewise, Claire Danes snaps off her dialogue like a whip and exhibits sufficient screen presence to avoid being a liability. The love affair between Richard and Sonja, despite being underplayed, is believable. Both Efron and Danes, however, exist in the shadow of Christian McKay, whose portrayal of Welles captures the essence of the great man: impatient, egotistic, arrogant, brilliant, and a perfectionist. It’s all there – the good and the bad – presented with such astonishing force that it’s impossible for McKay to not dominate every scene in which he appears. (McKay, before making this movie, had played Welles in a stage play.) Physically, McKay bears a passing resemblance to Welles, but his voice is uncannily exact – so much so that, if you watch with your eyes closed, the experience is almost eerie. Not since Anthony Hopkins took over a movie with his supporting role in The Silence of the Lambs has a secondary actor so dominated a movie.

Me and Orson Welles is designed primarily for those who are intrigued by theater, curious about Welles, or some combination of both. The film’s storyline is strong enough to provide structure for the production, but it is dramatically limited. Despite Linklater’s directorial credit and Efron’s name at the top of the marquee, Me and Orson Welles has taken fourteen months since its September 2008 world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival to obtain a limited United States release. Many distributors passed on the movie not because they weren’t impressed by its craft but because the potential audience is restricted. This is a specialty movie. Those in its demographic will fall under its impressive spell, but it will be difficult to find enough of those individuals to make the production profitable. McKay alone is well worth the price of admission and, if Me and Orson Welles proves to be too small for the Academy to notice, his performance could go down as one of the great overlooked ones of the decade.

Many tremendous movies could be made about Welles, whose larger-than-life personality would easily lend itself to an epic. From his critically adored stage productions to his War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast to his cinematic debut (and pinnacle), Citizen Kane, to the travesty of The Magnificent Ambersons, few 20th century personalities were more colorful. For Me and Orson Welles, we are presented not only with a minor slice from the man’s life, but one that is shown through the eyes of another. It’s an effective way to introduce the essence of Welles without overwhelming the viewer with his life story.

indiWIRE, Jeff Reichert, 24 November 2009:

REVIEW | Life on the Stage: Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles”

Like so many of Richard Linklater’s films, his latest, “Me and Orson Welles,” follows an ad hoc group working together towards an unlikely, and very impending, goal. In his winning “School of Rock” a bunch of children (and one mental child) aimed to play a great rock show. His pint-sized Bad News Bears struggled for dignity through sport and teamwork, crescendo achieved via the “big game.” In “Me and Orson Welles,” Linklater hops back to the 1930s to the debut of Orson Welles’s political staging of “Julius Caesar,” but despite this sophisticated material he still populates his movie with childish types (narcissistic theater actors, producers and designers), winding them up and letting them go. The filmmaker’s “Before Sunrise” / Sunset” diptych may be considered his archetypal works, but in focusing on just two characters they’re atypical: few American filmmakers are as fully invested in teasing out the character of communities, and his films are always full of well-balanced personages.

Linklater does construct heroes, leads, principals, but they’re most often subsumed into the ensemble—“Rock”‘s Jack Black and “Bears”’ Billy Bob Thornton both took backseats by the end of their respective starring vehicles. “Me and Orson Welles” has at its center Zac Efron as a theater-loving naif, but he’s neither the film’s most intriguing character, nor its most important. Efron’s Richard Samuels is a high school student with artistic ambitions who literally stumbles into a bit part in Orson Welles’s landmark Mercury Theater-opening production of “Caesar.” “Mistaken by Welles (grandly played by relative unknown Christian McKay) for just another struggling young actor,” Richard is summarily dubbed “Junior” by his egotistical director, handed a ukulele and thrust into the madcap production mere days before it’s scheduled to open, just as the cast and crew is beginning to lose faith. This Orson is what we have come to expect of portrayals of the mad genius: brilliant, charismatic, proud, simultaneously above the fray and petty. However, unlike the Welles of our mind, most often the bloated, bearded magician of his later years, McKay’s Welles is shockingly young. “Me and Orson Welles” may be most valuable for reminding us of the wellspring of the legendary filmmaker’s mythology.

“Me and Orson Welles” is a film of the theater, and, as per the genre’s requirements, its bulk is taken up with backstage hi-jinks: personality collisions, fleeting romances, technical and creative difficulties. You’ll recognize the troupe’s types and well-worn dynamics—for those so inclined this kind of material is as comfortable as a slipper. If the familiar scenarios never feel stale, it’s because of Linklater’s commitment to resurrecting even the hoariest of cinematic cliches through careful study and execution. He even manages to move so quickly through a spate of Orson Welles in-jokes that references to the man’s later career never feel exhausted.

There’s nothing lazy about “Me and Orson Welles,” but, even so, Linklater may be somewhat too lackadaisical a cinematic sensibility for the kind of screwball comedy that the screenplay sometimes aspires towards. It’s set in 1937, the right era for whip-smart dialogues and crackling physical comedy (his production at least nails the period), but these have never been the director’s forte. He seems more comfortable in his film’s casual opening when Richard, while riffling through 45s at a music store, runs across cute Gretta (Zoe Kazan) and the two fall into a loose Linklaterian chat about the popular music of the day, their dreams, and the like. The scene feels like a potential one-off, but as with some of Linklater’s most rewarding gambits, Gretta’s seeming narrative dead-end blossoms throughout the film, providing a welcome escape from the increasingly suffocating dynamics of the production.

Though it feels somewhat in doubt over much of the film, Welles does pull off his “Julius Caesar,” and Linklater’s abridged version of that famed opening night is some of the most intuitive rhythmic work of his career. Linklater may be a filmmaker more noted for his meandering takes and winding dialogue, but he handles Welles’s theatrical flourishes brilliantly, popping in and out of the show at precise moments (recalling how well he adapted to rock concerts and sports games in previous films), hitting the most famous beats, and also leaving room for slight spaces that remind us that “Me and Orson Welles” is a film about characters, not a history piece about an important play. Add another notch to his belt; at this point in his career, Linklater has fully made the unlikely transition from classic indie auteur to ideal studio director: he skips through genres, leaving his unmistakable generous personal touch in all of them. Even if his films still register as “indie” via their price tags or distribution mechanisms, he’s definitely playing in the big leagues.

The Star-Ledger, Stephen Whitty, 24 November 2009:

‘Me and Orson Welles’ movie review: All is not Welles, and that’s the trouble

The story of the impressionable young boy who meets a great and powerful man is an old one. But what’s the filmmaker to do when the mentor is a much more interesting character than the protégé?

That’s the problem faced by “Me and Orson Welles,” a movie about a high-schooler who somehow manages to nab a role in Welles’ classic 1937 stage production of “Julius Caesar.”

These sorts of stories work best when the icon (who also, invariably, turns out to have feet of clay) is a purely fictional person, or at least a famous person barely glimpsed. Bring him on too often and he steals the show.

Which Christian McKay does effortlessly here.

He’s not a perfect match, physically. Welles, who was — want to feel like a slacker? — only 22 when “Julius Caesar” debuted, still had a face rimmed with baby fat. And although McKay does a close approximation of that sonorous voice, it’s only close.

But he gets Welles’ mood right, ever self-absorbed, ever ambitious, ever volatile (there was a reason his theater company was called Mercury). Welles loved characters, but like many geniuses, he wasn’t terribly attuned to people; he would share top billing with Shakespeare, but grabbed credit from everyone else.

He was also, according to this movie — based on a book by New Jersey’s Robert Kaplow — as self-destructive as Shakespeare’s own heroes. His hubris was his own love of crises; they gave him the chance to make an entrance, and triumph. Until, one day, he didn’t, and his career shifted under him like sand.

Yet while this movie gets Welles right, and the communal joy of theater (Linklater has always been good at spotlighting outcast cultures), it gets some other things quite wrong.

One is the New York of the Depression era, re-created here in Great Britain. Unfortunately, the Isle of Man is not Manhattan island, and nothing on-screen quite convinces. Nor does star Zac Efron look like a ’30s teen — for one thing, his hair’s too long — or capture our interest.

He’s supposed to love the theater, yet we never really know why, or how it began, or even what he dreams of — just vague dreams about his liking plays and movies and, you know, songs and things. We watch him getting the chance of a lifetime, and yet we never see him work at it. We never know this boy.

I do, however, know one of the people who have been misrepresented on-screen here, and that’s another problem – and one that “fictional histories” like this seem to incur constantly. Only this time, instead of merely rewriting the dead, they’ve taken on the living.

You see, one of the great triumphs of Welles’ reimagined “Julius Caesar” was the scene portraying the death of Cinna. He was played by Norman Lloyd, who was born in Jersey City and went on to a long career (he played the title role in “Saboteur,” Dr. Auschlander on “St. Elsewhere” – and, just recently, the nursing home patient in “In Her Shoes”).

The real Norman Lloyd is a devoted husband and an erudite man (I interviewed him two years ago and, although 93 then, he was still going strong). But the movie’s Norman Lloyd — he’s called that by name — is a sloppy vulgarian who looks like a Stooge, sounds like a failed Borscht Belt comedian and chases skirts like an amorous terrier.

I hope the real Lloyd — who was actually a newlywed in 1937 — sues, not just for his own sake, but to slow down this trend. I’m getting very weary of filmmakers making up conversations, inventing motives and creating events so that their “based on a real story” movie can get to “the real truth.” Because, actually, there’s only one real truth.

And that’s the truth that actually happened.

Stephen WHitty’s rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS

The Christian Science Monitor, Peter Rainer, 25 November 2009:

‘Me and Orson Welles’: movie review

‘Me and Orson Welles’ is a heartfelt movie about a theater-struck high school teenager unceremoniously ushered into the mercurial world of Orson Welles.

Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” is one of the sweetest and most heartfelt movies ever made about a life in the theater. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely followed Linklater’s career, which encompasses everything from “School of Rock” to “Waking Life” to the great young-love duet, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” He has both a populist’s touch and a humanist’s eye. It’s a great and rare combination, and it serves him particularly well in this movie about a theater-struck high school teenager unceremoniously ushered into the fabulous world of that sacred monster, Orson Welles.

Quite by chance, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is cast in the bit role of Lucius in Welles’s daring adaptation of “Julius Caesar,” which is in its final week of rehearsal. (The actors are uniformed as Italian Fascists.) He enters into a world within a world where emotions run as high offstage as on and everyone is in fearful awe of the 22-year-old boy genius (Christian McKay).

Linklater and his screenwriters, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting the novel by Robert Kaplow, showcase the wraparound tumult of putting on a production, and they do it as if this sort of thing had never been filmed before. When Linklater made his “Sunrise/Sunset” films, the first stirrings of love seemed to be taking place right before our eyes. Similarly incandescent, “Me and Orson Welles” showcases an ardor for theater – for life lived at its highest pitch.

For Richard, the theater is also his entrance into a more earthly infatuation. Welles’s all-purpose assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) is lusted after by most of the troupe’s actors, who also include Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). Bemused by his innocence, she leads Richard on. Gaga from her attentions, he fancies the infatuation runs both ways. What he doesn’t recognize is Sonja’s all-purpose drive to get ahead. When he discovers her relationship with Welles is more than all-business, she explains pragmatically, “I have to take care of myself,” and the words hit him like slaps.

Efron has the sleek, retro look here of a 1930s matinee idol, a young Tyrone Power perhaps. He’s charming. The big splash in the cast, though, comes from McKay’s Welles. With the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote in “Capote,” I have never seen a famous-person performance this accomplished. It’s not just that McKay, a British actor who has performed as Welles on stage, looks and sounds uncannily like the real deal. He gives us Welles as a fully formed creation – an enfant terrible with the wiles and mores of an aging roué. This genius is a credit-hogging behemoth whose instinct for the right theatrical effect is as unerring in real life as on the stage (for Welles, the distinction may be moot). Linklater makes you feel exactly as Welles’s Mercury Theater players did: They may cower before him and curse him behind his back, but they know that this is the experience of a lifetime. They feel bludgeoned and anointed at the same time.

Welles in this film is so larger than life that, for a while, I was afraid he might become a roaring caricature. But Linklater gives Welles a beautiful, brief sequence where, riding with Richard en route to a radio show taping, he pulls out a marked copy of Booth Tarkington’s novel “The Magnificent Ambersons” and drops his guard for a moment. The book, he ventures, “is about how everything gets taken away from you,” and the moment is extraordinarily moving not only because we know that Welles years later will direct the film of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (which the studio took away from him and recut). It’s moving, and also creepy, because this prodigious young man resounds with a sense of loss he has yet to fully experience in his own life. We think, too, of the losses in his movie career as it unfolded, the botched and unfinished projects. We think of Welles’s legendary self-destructiveness that, here, in nascent form, is already gathering force.

But all thoughts of impending gloom are momentarily stayed on opening night, when Welles’s production of “Julius Caesar” gets a standing ovation. He mutters to himself, “How the hell do I top this?” The glint in his eye tells us he’s not worried in the slightest. Richard, meanwhile, cast off by Welles, remains enthralled. This teenager has just experienced something much bigger than himself. He speaks in the end about how all of life seems to be ahead of him, and you can’t help but share in his rapture. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for sexual references and smoking.)

Slant Magazine, Andrew Schenker, 22 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

In the traditional mythologies, two views of Orson Welles predominate, neither exactly flattering: the boy genius of the pre-Citizen Kane years, a fiery, arrogant wunderkind who cares for nothing except his art, unless it’s the company of as many women as will have him; and later, the bloated fatso pissing his legacy away on indifferent supporting roles and television spots while unable to complete any work of his own. Whatever the historical accuracy of these images may be (and we know that the second, in particular, is a dangerously false characterization), it’s not clear what productive use is to be gained from their continued rehashing. Which is why, among other reasons, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which draws on Richard Kaplow’s novel of the same name and takes place during the filmmaker’s 1937 make-it-or-break-it stage production of Julius Caesar, seems such an unenlightening exercise. Hewing closely to the boy genius paradigm, the film benefits from actor Christian McKay’s eerie evocation of Welles’s look and voice (nailing such mannerisms as a wry gesture at the corner of the mouth), but, setting aside a single scene where Welles waxes poetic on the art of acting, the film’s conception of the central character seems limited to the outline provided early on by his sometime lover: “competitive, self-centered, brilliant”—with the second of those qualities predominating.

But this isn’t really Welles’s story. Instead, the film unfolds principally as the coming-of-age tale of his enthusiastic 17-year-old not-quite-protégé. As played by Zac Efron, Richard Samuels is all bluster and charm, smoothly bluffing his way into the cast of Welles’s Caeser after skipping school one day to hang out in front of the Mercury Theater. Landing a small role in his hero’s latest production, this would-be thesp gets to know the other players (including a young Joseph Cotton), falls in love with the theater’s ambitious secretary, and has his occasional brushes, both encouraging and disillusioning, with the big man himself.

As a tale of youthful optimism faced with the realities of a harsh business, Linklater’s film takes its time kicking into gear, mostly because the pairing promised by the title is so lightly touched upon until the film’s final third. Instead, the director relies on Efron to carry the show, but the High School Musical actor is finally too bland to sell us much of interest apart from his youthful enthusiasm and a cockiness unsupported by personality. Only after Samuels finds himself as part of a love triangle with Welles and his secretary do things get interesting, though even these later scenes serve principally to paint the Citizen Kane auteur as a self-serving asshole.

The film’s pleasures (such as they are), then, are to be found almost entirely in the meticulously recreated period design—even as the brown-dominated color scheme, the constant blare of big-band horns on the soundtrack, and the glossiness of the sets tend to impart a frozen-in-amber quality, relegating the film to the realm of the comfortably historical. None of which stops Linklater from staging two magnificent set pieces that, in their attention to detail and sense of inventiveness, go some way toward undoing the perfunctory quality of the rest of the production. In one early scene, Welles lends his vocal talents to a radio broadcast. As the camera circles past the half-dozen actors huddled around a single microphone, it picks up such period touches as the in-house orchestra and the foley artists at work creating sound effects, before turning its attention to Welles, who improvises an entire speech, confounding his fellow actors and delighting the producers.

But even this scene is topped by the opening night Caesar performance in which Welles brings it all together, making 11th-hour changes to the script just minutes before the curtain rises. As the play unfolds, Linklater gives us a generous selection of scenes from what appears to have been a visually varied and impeccably acted production, spotlighting Welles the thespian as much as Welles the director. What makes these two sequences so appealing is that they show a method to the auteur’s madness, the upshot of his incredibly demanding working methods and his insufferable personality. Too bad the rest of the film seems more interested in chronicling that very insufferabllity—not to mention Welles’s general immorality—than it is in documenting the director’s lasting achievements.

Empire Magazine, Kim Newman, 1 December 2009:

Me and Orson Welles


A young man (Efron) stumbles his way into the Mercury Theatre, set up by Orson Welles in 1937. There he learns about acting, life and love.


When Simon Callow set out to write a biography of Orson Welles, he found his subject too big for one volume. Similarly, it’s unlikely there’ll ever be a full biopic because, like Citizen Kane, Harry Lime and Mr. Arkadin, Welles showed many faces to many people over the years. However, a growing library of Welles-themed films exists, and soon it’ll be possible to programme a month-long season covering his life.

Richard Linklater’s film of Robert Kaplow’s novel, which somehow makes the Isle Of Man convincing as the Isle Of Manhattan, sits comfortably between Cradle Will Rock (set just before it), the TV movie The Night That Panicked America (about the 1938 War Of The Worlds broadcast), and RKO 281 (about Citizen Kane). Linklater scores over other Welles films in one crucial area: Christian McKay is the best screen Welles stand-in to date, easily raising the bar set by Angus Macfadyen, Liev Schreiber, Vincent d’Onofrio and Danny Huston. McKay uncannily resembles the young Welles and catches the familiar mannerisms, but more importantly he inhabits the role of a man who was always ‘on’: radiating the charisma that made people stick with him no matter how big a bastard he could be, stopping every so often to improvise lyrical speeches, weaselling out of crises by leaving human wreckage in his wake, clowning like a baby desperate to win over the grown-ups, and pulling great art out of himself like a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.

Around Orson Welles, the film weaves a conventional but nicely turned tale about a youth’s first steps in theatre, with Zac Efron creditably turning down his natural star quality to seem like a hesitant beginner and striking sparks off leading ladies Claire Danes and Zoe Kazan. Like Cradle Will Rock, it’s also a careful account of a legendary stage production, a ‘fascist Caesar’ with Mussolini uniforms and Nuremberg lighting. Welles’ Mercury Theatre was packed with big characters, and this is one of Linklater’s large cast films — with heroic work from Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill and Kelly Reilly as real actors (it’s touching that Bill does such a dead-on impersonation of the scarcely well-remembered Norman Lloyd), and more terrific support from Eddie Marsan as long-suffering producer John Houseman.


A really satisfying backstage drama, this is an exhilarating tour around a man whose talent was almost as big as his ego.

4 out of 5, Edward Douglas, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Our alternate “Chosen One” this week couldn’t be any more different from The Road, although it’s another one of my favorites from the Toronto Film Festival, the one from last year this time, and it’s a wonderful movie from Richard Linklater that takes a look at the heyday of Orson Welles as a theater director, as he staged his production of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater.

Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of theatre or unfamiliar with Welles’ non-film work, one certainly can’t get a better entry into the filmmaker’s early days than Zac Efron’s character, the “me” of the title, an ambitious but naïve teen named Richard Samuels who is inadvertently thrust into Welles’ circle at a time when the 22-year-old prodigy was making his way up the ranks of the New York theater world.

Some might immediately want to discount the movie based on Efron’s questionable Disney past, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised that the young actor does a fine job carrying his part of the film with personality and charm, most of that being used to woo the theater’s manager Sonja, played by Claire Danes. Even so, Efron doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, and it’s McKay’s performance as the younger Welles that leaves the biggest impression. He plays Welles as an arrogant blowhard who shows up late for rehearsals and then proceeds to make the entire troupe’s life hell, and yet, you can’t help but enjoy his very presence every time he’s in a scene.

Working from a terrific script, Linklater follows Richard’s story from the early rehearsals of Welles’ play to opening night, and it’s fun to get a glimpse into how Welles worked and got the best out of his actors and crew, even as he drove them crazy with his erratic behavior. Richard is a cocky kid always trying to earn the respect of the man who everyone else is afraid to confront, and it leads to a number of great scenes between them. Surrounding the three leads is a terrific ensemble cast epitomizing all of the archetypes one might expect within a theater company, which keeps the movie fun even when McKay isn’t on screen, and I particularly loved seeing the always-great Eddie Marsan portraying John Houseman.

It feels like a very different movie for Linklater, mainly because of the period and setting, but he uses the opportunity to team for the first time with the great cinematographer Richard Pope, who the arthouse crowd may be familiar with from his terrific work with Mike Leigh.

Besides looking great, the film has a romanticism that we haven’t seen very much from Linklater in recent years as he’s explored science fiction or the fast food business, but it does hark back to his work in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and it’s just an all-around warm and entertaining film that hopefully will find its well-deserved audience.

Me and Orson Welles will open in New York and L.A. on Wednesday with plans to expand into more cities on December 4 and December 11. If you like films like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy or Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents or Linklater’s Before Sunset, then this should be a nice alternative to the Hollywood movies currently in theaters., Chris Cabin, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

In Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, the 14th feature by the prolific indie auteur, British stage actor Christian McKay offers another invocation of the mythos that surrounded the titular American filmmaker. It is an impressive, dominating and completely engrossing performance which McKay, at the age of 34, has refined over the last few years since first inhabiting the legendary martinet in “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles”, a one-man stage show written by Mark Jenkins. No small feat considering Welles was arguably only able to express versions of himself rather than his “real” persona — a notion that comes up late in Me and Orson Welles, but is nevertheless a key aspect of its densely constructed, immensely entertaining 114 minutes.

In 1937, The Mercury Theater was just the sort of place where youthful ambition and art love could collide, with funding and direction. Owned by Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), the Mercury’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar” — with noir trenchcoats and Gestapo uniforms — would offer a platform for the Welles of Citizen Kane four years later. And in Linklater’s film, adapted from Robert Kaplow’s novel by Vincent and Holly Gent Palmo, it serves as the unlikely meeting space of Welles and Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a hopeful teen who impresses the grand wizard by playing a drum roll and singing the Wheaties radio jingle.

This impromptu display of talent inspires Welles, then only 22, to cast Richard in the role of Lucius, Brutus’s servant. Sparks then fly when he meets Sonja Jones (a marvelous Claire Danes), the Mercury’s secretary, who herself serves Welles and Houseman in the hopes of meeting David O’Selznick. As everything else falls to pieces, they fall for each other…or so Richard believes. Finding a friend in Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and a cautionary tale in George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), Richard endures a baptism of sorts into the world of art created by Welles’s tyrannical vision.

Linklater, working with production designer Laurence Dorman, gets the look of the time right. He also keeps things moving briskly without sacrificing resonance or thematic complexity. Me and Orson Welles is a film about the early rumblings of an elusive legend covered in the smoke of his own mythology, but it is also a proudly self-reflexive and well-balanced look at how a piece of art is made.

“We’re waiting for Orson,” Marsan says often, and one senses that Linklater wants this to reflect not only on the director’s impact on modern filmmaking, but also the revelation of who he really was. He wisely leaves that last question wide open: Nothing less than a treatment on-par with I’m Not There would suit such mercurial and complicated a figure as Welles. Linklater’s fantastic film does that complexity justice, while also refusing to soften the moral and emotional pitfalls of artistic collaboration. The audience will likely dislike Welles when he refuses to give credit to an exhausted handy man. But then again, did Jackson Pollock give credit to the paint company?

Associated Press, Jake Coyle, 24 November 2009:

Review: ‘Me and Orson Welles’ is snappy if slight

As an icon prone to caricature, Orson Welles ranks right up there with Truman Capote and Ray Charles.

But in “Me and Orson Welles,” our view of the great, charismatic director and thespian isn’t straight on, but a sideways glance. We see him from the perspective of an aspiring teenager, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who lands a bit part in Welles’ 1937 production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theatre in New York.

Welles, then only 22, had just begun to make a name for himself on radio and on stage with his “Voodoo Macbeth,” which he set in Haiti. His “Caesar” — “a lean, brutal `Caesar,'” as he calls it in the film, set in contemporary Fascist Italy — was a sensation. Welles would soon after begin work on “Citizen Kane.”

Fame was imminent and Welles knew it.

Christian McKay, a previously unknown British theater actor, plays Welles in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” and he clearly has the part down pat — the ever-shifting eyebrows, the sonorous, arch baritone, the “old man.” McKay’s Welles is arresting in its accuracy, though at a certain point its polish keeps Welles under a sheen.

He does, though, convey Welles’ mix of genius and — like his “Caesar” — his brutality. He commands his theater company just as he commands our attention. He is enthralled by creation and reinvention, and has little patience for the “agents to his vision.”

The lowliest of those agents is Richard, the “Me” of the title. In just one day, he manages to skip away from high school in New Jersey, chat up two attractive girls, impress Welles enough to land a role in “Caesar,” and learn how to pay the ukulele. Fans of Efron (“High School Musical,””17 Again”) may wonder just what teenybopper optimism can’t accomplish?

Richard’s path in life is unsure, but he passionately wants to be around theater, movies and music. It’s a picture of the artist as a young heartthrob.

Efron has an easy, natural presence on screen and his performance is effortless and confident. But it also doesn’t carry much weight, and the biggest problem for “Me and Orson Welles” is that when McKay fades from view and Efron is left to carry the film, it feels slight.

But much of what Linklater has crafted is substantial. The director (“Dazed and Confused,””Before Sunset,””Waking Life”) has a particular talent in chronicling coming-of-age stories and romances with equally levelheaded naturalism. In this case, the romance is with theater, or more generally, the creation of art.

“Me and Orson Welles” cherishes ramshackle rehearsals and backstage banter. Linklater brings out the inner dynamics of the company: Welles placating the ego of his Antony, George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), arguing with his producer and partner John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), worrying about theater superstitions, like that a bad thing must happen before opening night (“some malevolent spirit must be exorcised,” intones Welles).

Just before the curtain rises, Welles tells his cast: “Make ’em sweat” — and one wishes Linklater’s film had just a little of the same urgency and aspiration.

The wide-eyed Richard — “Junior” to Welles — takes it all in like a fly on the wall. He falls in with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a young aspiring actress working as an assistant to Welles.

Like many in the film, she’s bristling with ambition. Dreaming of a career in Hollywood, she’s angling to meet producer David O. Selznick — a goal that will easily supersede any relationship that develops between her and Richard.

“Me and Orson Welles” is based on the historical fiction novel by Robert Kaplow. Though the backdrop of Welles and his theater company is based on history, Richard’s story is wholly imagined.

The production design by Laurence Dorman is excellent. Though the New York exteriors resemble the fake-looking studio facades of something like “Newsies,” the inside of the Mercury Theater — where most of the film takes place — feels true.

Ultimately, “Me and Orson Welles” is about a life-changing brush with fame, a brief moment in time with a swelling star — and the presumed, lasting influence of witnessing the thrill of an artistic life. It doesn’t have anything close to the heft of Welles, but it’s snappy enough that it might have conjured a wry smile or two from the old man.

“Me and Orson Welles,” a CinemaNX and Isle of Man Film release, is rated PG-13 for sexual references and smoking. Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Village Voice, J. Hoberman, 24 November 2009:

Richard Linklater’s Orson Welles Puts on Quite a Show

The most significant American artist before Andy Warhol to take “the media” as his medium, Orson Welles lives on not only in posthumously restored director’s cuts of his re-released movies, but as a character in other people’s novels, plays, and movies—notably Richard Linklater’s deft, affectionate, and unexpectedly enjoyable Me and Orson Welles.

Like Tim Robbins’s far less adroit Cradle Will Rock, released exactly a decade ago, Me and Orson Welles concerns a legendary Welles stage production, namely his 1937 black-shirt version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This cut-and-paste anti-fascist spectacle—characterized in its original press material as the “Death of a Dictator” and in a frantic state of revision up until opening night—was the Mercury Theatre’s first Broadway show. It was also its 22-year-old director’s personal triumph, if more for his bravura use of lighting and bare-bones stagecraft to evoke the spectacle of mob rule than his distracted performance as the bumbling “bourgeois intellectual” Brutus.

Adapted from a novel by high school English teacher Robert Kaplow, Linklater’s movie views Welles’s achievement from the perspective of a high school student (teenage heartthrob Zac Efron), slightly younger but scarcely less stage-struck or brash. Dubbed “Junior” by Welles (British actor Christian McKay), the lad brazens his way into a minor part as Brutus’s lute-strumming page, a week before the play is set to open. “You’re not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit,” Welles’s assistant (Claire Danes) good-naturedly warns him, scarcely out of her teens and pleased to play the worldly older woman. Actually, the callow but competent Junior gets away with quite a bit (up to a point), even as he learns something about performing and human nature—or at least about the nature of Orson Welles.

So do we, thanks to a rich—bordering on plummy—performance by McKay, who previously inhabited this part in the Off-Broadway one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles. His vocal impression of Welles is pitch-perfect, and he nails Welles’s ironic twinkle and assured, mocking self-importance. He portrays the shamelessly hammy, hilariously patronizing, craftily manipulative Welles learning how to play Welles—that his performance is clearly modeled on Welles’s own as the young Charles Foster Kane actually enriches Citizen Kane in retrospect. Me and Orson Welles doesn’t lack for vivid turns—including Danes’s ambitious college girl, Eddie Marsan’s distracted John Houseman, James Tupper’s affable Joseph Cotten, and Ben Chaplin’s high-strung George Coulouris—but McKay naturally steals the show, even as Welles steals Junior’s girl.

For all of its virtues, Me and Orson is not perfect. The thrifty period mise-en-scène is oversaturated with ’30s popular music (although not, curiously, the modernist-cabaret score Marc Blitzstein provided for the stage production), and the screenplay gives only a perfunctory sense of the era’s Popular Front politics (Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy opened on Broadway one week before). But, percolating with backstage banter and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Me and Orson is a spirited, confident, and even edifying piece of work. Welles takes Junior along when he rushes off to do a radio play, with the airy assurance that one can learn all that needs to be known about radio drama in an hour. (Actually, it only takes 10 minutes—the length of this richly comic sequence.) Linklater’s climactic opening night provides a similarly convincing précis of Welles’s production. It’s easy to understand why, despite drama critic George Jean Nathan’s celebrated dis (“Playing Julius Caesar in modern dress strikes me as being of a piece with playing Room Service in togas”), the production was a tremendous success.

Would that Linklater had quit while he was ahead. Burdened by an unnecessary subplot featuring Zoe Kazan’s aspiring writer, Me and Orson goes disconcertingly soft toward the end—throwing away the provocative notion that the entire episode might have been Junior’s classroom daydream for a more conventional closer. This nod to naturalism is itself cancelled out by the sentimental addition of Orson’s sotto voce “thank you,” directed to the back of the long-suffering Houseman. This momentary deflation of the Welles ego is the least convincing moment in the film.

USA Today, Claudia Puig, 24 November 2009:

‘Me and Orson Welles’ could use a little direction

Awkward syntax aside, Me and Orson Welles would be a much better movie if the first part of the title were excised, or at least scaled back.

The story pertaining to Orson Welles (terrifically played by Christian McKay) is far more compelling than what happens to the young guy who gets unexpectedly swept up in Welles’ brilliant circle. Had the movie, which is set in 1937, centered more on Welles and his seminal production of Julius Caesar, it would have been fascinating. But as a theatrical coming-of-age story, it’s slight, only sporadically enjoyable and sometimes corny.

McKay’s performance is a revelation. He nails Welles’ imperiousness, charm and vocal cadences, and even bears a strong resemblance to the iconic actor/director. He is thoroughly convincing as Welles and electrifies the screen when he’s on it

The Me in the title refers to a teenage aspiring actor named Richard, played by Zac Efron. Unfortunately, too much time is spent with Efron, a likable but lackluster presence.

By a stroke of luck, 17-year-old Richard wins a part in Welles’ Caesar. He strolls by New York’s Mercury Theater one afternoon, and the next thing he knows he’s drafted to play the ukulele (which doubles as a lute) and given a role opposite Welles’ Brutus.

Over the course of a week, Richard, dubbed “Junior,” is pulled into the impetuous Welles’ inner circle and finds romance with an older woman (Claire Danes). Efron is hampered by occasional mumbling and lacks the chemistry with Danes to make their connection believable. And Richard’s chance meeting with an aspiring writer (Zoe Kazan) is stilted.

Much of the movie is bathed in a golden glow, and the score helps to conjure the era. But some of the dialogue sounds modern.

This is not one of director Richard Linklater’s better films. It lacks the intimacy of Before Sunset and the sense of celebration of The School of Rock. The movie is worth seeing for McKay, but it sometimes feels like two movies cobbled together. Efron’s Richard is somewhat of a cipher. It’s unclear why he’s drawn to acting, though he eventually realizes that he is committed to being a part of the artistic world.

Welles would use the same encouraging words to pump up his chosen players. At one point he praises Richard’s “magnificence.” Though Welles doesn’t consistently enthrall as a tribute to the stage, McKay is a magnificent surprise.

LA Times, Betsy Sharkey, 24 November 2009:

Guess who upstages ‘Me and Orson Welles’?

The famed director, as played by Christian McKay, can’t help but be larger than life, even with Claire Danes and Zac Efron along for the ride.

“Me and Orson Welles” is a frothy backstage pass, courtesy of director Richard Linklater, to the early days of the great director (that would be Welles) during a stint as the mercurial head of the Mercury Theater Company in 1937.

Adapted from Robert Kaplow’s novel, the “Me” is a teenager whose coming-of-age story unfolds during the staging of Welles’ groundbreaking reimagining of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a ’30s-era Fascist dictator. The teen in question is Richard Samuels, played by “High School Musical” heartthrob Zac Efron, a senior who slips out of class and into NYC only to get swept up in Welles’ retinue, with a small part tossed his way as a bone.

The film’s other key players are Claire Danes as the director’s whip-smart assistant and sometime lover Sonja; Christian McKay as Welles, who bears a striking resemblance to the man and has a good handle on his pretension and ambition; and Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer and the occasional object of young Richard’s affection when he’s not mooning over Sonja.

Richard’s problem is really Efron’s problem too, and thus the film’s (which may be why it stumbled around the festival circuit for nearly a year before finding a distributor). The character spends most of the movie trailing Welles around like a puppy, only occasionally biting the hand that feeds him. The role was supposed to mark Efron as a grown-up actor and while he’s pleasant enough he remains very much in the puppy-training phase, with Danes and McKay holding on to most of the movie’s treats.

Linklater always brings a great sense of place to his projects, whether it’s “School of Rock’s” classroom antics with Jack Black, the stoner high school students of “Dazed and Confused,” or Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wandering Paris in 2004’s “Before Sunset.” Though the production team gives us a lovely re-creation of the New York theater district circa 1937, the filmmaker truly finds his footing inside the Mercury where the casting, the staging and the catastrophes play out.

But it’s the clashing egos as much as the brilliant theater that interests Linklater here. The script, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, has Welles moving through the theater troupe like a shark, feeding on anyone who is weaker than he is, which means everyone. Roles are expanded and contracted with abandon, actors hired and fired, lovers taken and discarded with a pregnant wife not treated much better.

McKay, a British stage actor who was doing an off-Broadway production about the movie legend when casting started, and Danes, whose acting always seems so effortlessly good, are the best things about the film.

But as in life, the presence of Welles never fails to overtake things and McKay’s command of the subject is so Welles-ian that when he’s in a scene everyone else fades a little. And neither the director (that would be Linklater) nor the film ever quite recover from that.

Rope of Silicon, Bred Brevet, 25 November 2009:

Movie Review: Me and Orson Welles (2009)

McKay gives one of the best performances of 2009

Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is a hard one to put your finger on. It’s got comedic elements, a baseline dramatic framework and then doesn’t fully dedicate itself to being a coming-of-age story. However, despite my inability to nail it down in a nutshell, it’s a great film with one of the better male performances of 2009.

Starring as the titular “me” is Zac Efron playing Richard, a wannabe actor who coincidentally runs into a 22-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay) coming out of the newly-opened Mercury Theatre where he will produce, direct and star in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Words are said and Richard finds himself with a part in the play and rubbing elbows with Welles on a day-to-day basis as something of a friend-at-arms-length over the course of the next week, culminating in the opening night production.

The central focus is undoubtedly Richard as we see the movie through his eyes, but McKay is dominating as Welles in a performance that steals the show. I’d say this makes everyone else look meek in his shadow, but perhaps that’s exactly as it was with Welles, a man that knew exactly what to say, what to do and when to do it. All in an effort to ensure things are done his way. He comes across as a madman of sorts and if you’re in his presence you feel blessed. It’s as if you are a part of his genius. After all, the film is set in 1937, one year before Welles was known for his “War of the Worlds” broadcast and most certainly before Citizen Kane. That said, McKay manages to bring to life elements of a Welles we would come to know and hear in the future.

The lengths people will go to please him and better their position in the industry are most reflected in the performance given by Claire Danes as Welles’s production assistant Sonja Jones. Throughout most of the film Sonja speaks of her anticipated meeting with mega-producer David O. Selznick and proves nothing is taboo when it comes to protecting the longevity of your career.

Efron’s Richard is the wide-eyed optimist in all of this as he gets more and more comfortable in his new surroundings. After all, it’s much better than his “other” life he as a 17-year-old student, even though he hasn’t given up on that life just yet. After all, if Me and Orson Welles is truly about anything, it’s about youthful possibilities and the chasing of dreams. Even Welles is a youngster in this story.

It’s about how you can have the golden ticket in your hand and how it can blow away just as quickly. The message, of course, is to not let the lost moment be the end of you as there is still always more to do.

Linklater co-wrote and directed one of my all-time favorite films in Before Sunset and there are many others to his credit that adorn my DVD shelf space, and again he has put together a film worth adding to that collection for repeated viewings. It’s a film I suggest you take in at the theater and demand at your local art house cinema. If anything, it is a must see simply for McKay’s performance alone.


A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

The problem with films about theater is that they tend to feel theatrical. They’re less about human beings than about actors pretending to be actors pretending to be human beings. That’s a central weakness of Richard Linklater’s disappointing new period drama Me And Orson Welles, a terminally bland coming-of-age story about a pretty young man with the world’s most awesome after-school job. The featherweight trifle gives us a busy assemblage of familiar theatrical types—the womanizing actor, the vain diva with an almost preternatural grasp of how she’s being lit at any given moment, the cast cut-up, the imperious impresario, and ingénues male and female—then pitches its performances unabashedly to the rafters. Its poor players are shameless hams on and offstage, wrapped up in dramas of their own devising.

Zac Efron plays a dreamy high-school student who bluffs his way into Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, winning a role in its daring modern-dress production of Julius Caesar, which recast Shakespeare’s scheming Romans as contemporary Fascists. The life lessons begin when Efron falls for production assistant Claire Danes, a brassy career girl who broadcasts rather than hides her burning ambition. She’s going places, and will hitch her wagon to whoever can get her there quickest.

Efron has yet to learn that smiling pretty is merely a component of acting, not its entirety. He makes for a supremely passive lead whose chemistry with Danes is nonexistent; he seems infinitely more enamored of his image in any reflective surface than in his ostensible love interest. Playing an appropriately majestic Orson Welles, newcomer Christian McKay boldly fills the charisma vacuum the two leads leave. McKay is blustery, over-the-top, and wildly theatrical, but so was the man he’s portraying. Me And Orson Welles casts off the musty air of a handsomely mounted, tastefully dull HBO TV movie only when McKay takes center stage, as when he shocks and delights his fellow cast members in a mediocre radio show by incongruously inserting a lyrical passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into their hacky little drama. Me And Orson Welles belongs to that loveable show-biz subgenre about colorful kooks mounting a big production, but it’s strictly a one-man show., Stephanie Zacharek, 24 November 2009:

Cinematic genius meets teen heartthrob

A mighty cute Zac Efron plays the foil in Richard Linklater’s affectionate ode to Orson Welles

Whether filmmaker and actor extraordinaire Orson Welles knew he was great from the beginning or made himself great out of sheer will is one of the great mysteries of show business. And with his charming if whisper-weight “Me and Orson Welles,” director Richard Linklater does little to either illuminate or puncture that mystery: He allows, simply, that Welles was a genius creation of either God or man.

The picture, based on Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, takes place during the course of one week in 1937, just as Welles is getting his Mercury Theater off the ground. Welles, played by English actor Christian McKay, is putting the final touches on an ambitious production of “Julius Caesar,” in which he’s cast himself as Brutus. Impulsively and casually, he hires a school kid and wannabe actor, Zac Efron’s Richard, to play the role of Lucius. The main requirement for the part is that Richard should be able to play a ukulele disguised as a lute, though he also learns, from Welles’ comely and ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), that the actor previously cast in the role had been unceremoniously dismissed by Welles, not because of a personality conflict, but because the younger actor had a personality, period. Welles may pretend to share the stage with his fellow actors, but he leaves no doubt this is his show.

And so Richard begins a whirlwind week that involves rubbing shoulders with other actors in the Mercury troupe, among them Joseph Cotten (channeled beautifully by James Tupper), who’s busy sleeping his way through every girl in the Manhattan phone book, and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who wears a veneer of coolness but who’s really a nervous wreck. Richard also, of course, can’t help wanting to woo Sonja, even though a young, aspiring writer he’s just met, Zoe Kazan’s Gretta, falls more safely into his league.

This is a standard coming-of-age story set in a milieu that’s anything but standard, and that’s what keeps the picture’s motor running. Linklater is nothing if not a versatile director, having helmed the rapturous bookend love stories “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” as well as raucous mainstream comedies like “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears,” not to mention rotoscope-animation experiments like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” Even so, “Me and Orson Welles” is something altogether different for him, a gentle, semi-historical period piece. The picture is enjoyable, if somewhat meandering — the direction could use a bit more zip, a more urgent sense of momentum.

But the script, by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., gives the actors plenty to work with, and Linklater’s approach seems to have been to stand back and let them run with it. Danes, as a college-educated woman who’s toiling away at the bottom of the showbiz ladder and doesn’t want to stay there, walks a deft line, capturing her character’s vulnerability and shrewdness. Eddie Marsan — so wonderful as the hotheaded driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” — makes an elegantly mannered, eternally nervous John Houseman.

The Sun King at the center of it all is Welles himself. This is hardly a flattering portrait — as he’s shaped and played here, Welles is a cruel game-player, probably meaner and more self-centered than even the preternaturally confident Welles really was. Still, McKay and Linklater betray a great deal of affection for this boastful genius, and McKay, with his baby-faced features and satiny voice, is wildly charismatic. This is the kind of performance that flirts with the scary truth that arrogance can be sexy.

So where does that leave Efron, who not so long ago starred in the shamelessly entertaining “High School Musical 3” and who now yearns to shed his heartthrob image? It’s possible that Efron is too good-looking for his own good: Watching him, I always have to fight the urge to dismiss him, just because it seems unfair that any human being should have been born that cute. But I always come away thinking he’s an actor who’s likable enough now, and who may be able to grow even more. And I fear for him as I fear for any young actor who can also sing and dance: Those are gifts that few movies have much use for these days.

And so when Richard, upon learning that Sonja’s last name is Jones, brazenly serenades her with a line from Rodgers and Hart, I wondered what he might be able to do with the rest of the song. “Have you met Miss Jones?” he croons to her, and she waves him away, having heard that line a million times before. Maybe she’s heard it a million times before, but we haven’t. “Me and Orson Welles” is a sweet, modest snapshot of a long-lost time when a bold kid with a showbiz dream and a little luck could actually get somewhere, and if he could sing and dance to boot, his chances of success would be even greater. Zac Efron fits right into 1937; in 2009, he’s a lost boy.

TIME Magazine, Mary Pols, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles: Zac Efron Takes the Stage

Imagine you adore a blue-eyed young man with a pert nose and a soft wave of brown hair, and so you get your parents to take you to his latest movie, Me and Some Dead Guy Who Was Famous Once and the boy is even cuter than usual, but there’s also this big guy, with crazy eyes and much less docile hair, who talks about Shakespeare (kill me now), insults everybody — the cute boy worst of all — and chews cigars and sometimes when he talks you see actual spit coming out of his mouth? And on the way home your parents start talking about Oscar nominations, which they never did after High School Musical 3 and it turns out that they aren’t talking about Zac at all, but Crazy Eyes? Wouldn’t that be a major bummer?

Unless, that is, you’re more curious about Orson Welles than about the charming but still callow Zac Efron. In the new Richard Linklater film, Me and Orson Welles, a youthful Welles is brilliantly embodied by Christian McKay in one of those, hey-who’s-that? performances that tends to draw Oscar talk, even if the film itself isn’t much more than an extremely pleasant lark. It is set in 1937, when Welles was just 22 and his ego was better established than his career. His broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was a year away, Citizen Kane four years. But already Welles was keeping multiple mistresses and holding an entire cast hostage to his whims. “The principal occupation of the Mercury Theater is waiting for Orson,” explains the young John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).

Based on Robert Kaplow’s young adult novel of the same name, the story blends fictional characters with real ones. Efron plays a fictional one: 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a high school student who worships Noel Coward and who acts as our main conduit into Welles’ world. Welles plucks Richard off the street and gives him a small but crucial part in his version of Julius Caesar, which truly was performed, to great success — in modern dress with a fascist theme — at New York’s Mercury Theater that fall.

Spending a week in Welles’s orbit, Richard learns how to light a match in the coolest possible way, how to impress a girl and, like Icarus, he discovers what happens when you get too close to a star. He rubs elbows with plenty of real people who were fast becoming Welles’ loyalists, like Houseman, Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and radio star Les Tremayne (Michael Brandon) as well as one fictional dream girl, Sonja (Claire Danes), a Vassar grad who functions as the production’s girl Friday and occasionally, as Welles requires it, geisha to the resident genius.

McKay’s performance, which marries physical resemblance to internal channeling — he’s practiced in this, having written and performed a one-man show called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles — is exceptional. But there’s one insurmountable problem: his age. He’s 36, and passing for Welles at 22 is more than a stretch, especially when you’re up against the world’s biggest teenybopper. When Orson and Richard are briefly positioned as romantic rivals for Sonja, it’s ludicrous, no matter how much charisma Efron exudes — since our perception of him is as a man in his mid-30s, based on McKay’s appearance, it hardly seems like a legitimate context. Sonja is not as worldly as she’d like us to believe — she’s all red lipstick and knowing looks — but she and Richard still seem light-years apart in terms of maturity. It doesn’t help the plot’s credibility that there’s something slightly off about Danes — her vivacity is a kettle threatening to boil over — and that we, along with Richard, have already met his far better match, a quirky aspiring writer (the adorable Zoe Kazan) who is his equal in unjaded excitement.

Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) usually sticks to contemporary stories, or ones set in the recent past. (An exception, The Newton Boys, a 1920s-set western, was his least memorable film.) Nothing about Me and Orson Welles suggests a directorial affinity for period pieces. When a vintage ambulance pulls up to transport Welles around Manhattan, you half expect the prop master to pop out and buff the hood with pride. But Linklater’s great strength lies in showing how “families” form in unexpected places, especially when it’s a question of putting on a show. Here we’re witnessing not only genius at work (watching rehearsals, we might doubt this Julius Caesar, but what we see of the opening night is electrifying; that’s when you really thrill to McKay’s Welles) but also the way Richard falls in love with the idea of theatrical family.

In one scene, Richard is exploring backstage, and we feel his pleasure in his insider status; he’s puffed up from it. Then he lights a match to better examine graffiti left by someone who walked these boards in earlier days and inadvertently sets off the theater’s sprinkler system, dousing everything, including Welles, who is madder than a wet cat. It perfectly catches the mood of the theater as seductress: one minute, she wants you, she makes you feel blessed, another, she reminds you what a buffoon you are to believe you belong here.

New York Post, Lou Lumenick, 25 November 2009:

All’s Welles and good

It’s quite a leap for Zac Efron from the “High School Musical” series to “Me and Orson Welles,” a coming-of-age comedy set against the background of Orson Welles’ legendary, fascist-themed 1937 stage production of “Julius Caesar.”

In truth, this charming, thankfully atypical film by Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise” and its even more soporific sequel) belongs not to Efron but to British actor Christian McKay, who entertainingly dominates the proceedings as the young, hammy genius Welles.

The spare and foreshortened but powerful Shakespearean adaptation was the first production of the Mercury Theatre, which Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, effectively cast against type) founded after splitting with the Federal Theater following a battle over “Cradle Will Rock.”

“Me and Orson Welles” is, in effect, a sequel to Tim Robbins’ star-filled, self-important film about “Cradle,” but it’s far lighter on its feet.

Efron is the audience’s surrogate as a 17-year-old suburban lad who lands a small role in the production. He gets lucky with a production assistant (Claire Danes), but also has an eye for a younger writer played by Zoe Kazan (whose grandfather Elia was acting with the Group Theater at the same time).

These actors are playing more-or-less fictional characters, but pretty much everyone else is playing a real person, and it’s especially fun if you know the actors they are playing.

Ben Chaplin is the high-strung George Coulouris, Welles’ Caesar; James Tupper (“Men in Trees”) cuts a dashing figure as future movie star Joseph Cotten; and Leo Bill is extremely funny as the still-extant Norman Lloyd, future villain of Hitchock’s “Saboteur” and, still later, Dr. Auschlander of “St. Elsewhere.”

There are romantic rivalries and backstage crises aplenty as opening night approaches and everyone (especially the long-suffering Houseman) gripes about the imperious Welles, who tends to show up hours late for rehearsals.

In the end, though, Welles delivers. The film’s final half-hour is devoted to a fairly meticulous re-creation of the groundbreaking show — from original designs and Marc Blitzstein’s score — that fully demonstrates the genius that Welles would eventually bring to bear on his screen masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”

“Me and Orson Welles,” mostly filmed on London soundstages and an old theater on Britain’s Isle of Man, is one of the best pictures about the stage in recent memory.

3 out of 4 stars

Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern, 27 November 2009:

‘Me and Orson Welles’

Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” a cheerfully fatuous coming of age comedy, was adapted from a novel by Robert Kaplow. The setting is New York in 1937. That’s when the preposterously precocious Welles, at the age of 22, was directing his Mercury Theater production of “Julius Caesar,” a daring adaptation set in fascist Italy. Strictly speaking, Welles isn’t the movie’s central character; the Me of the ungrammatical title is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student who inveigles Welles into casting him as the lute-playing Lucius. Still, Welles is Welles. He was always at the center of everything, and he certainly is here. What’s more, he’s played by an excellent English actor, Christian McKay, who bears, or somehow simulates, a facial resemblance to the great man, and nails Welles’s expression of pouty, aggrieved amusement. But Mr. McKay is in his mid-30s, and doesn’t conceal it, so what’s the point? By taking the kind out of wunderkind, the movie also removes the wunder.

For those who care less about Orson Welles and more about the heart-throbby Mr. Efron, the point is clear: put the young star of Disney’s “High School Musical” (who just turned 22 himself) into a nostalgic period piece and give him a chance to develop his acting chops. But Mr. Efron’s fix on the period suggests a GPS struggling in a low-signal area, and the movie becomes an affectionate, name-dropping exercise in historical mutilation. Among the members of the Mercury Theater, John Houseman is played by Eddie Marsan, Joseph Cotten is played by James Tupper and Norman Lloyd is played by Leo Bill. Mr. Lloyd, who was born one year before Orson Welles, is an irrepressible raconteur and an endlessly zestful observer of the movie scene. I dare not imagine what he’ll think of “Me and Orson Welles.” Though, no, I dare.

AICN, Massawyrm, 25 November 2009:

Massawyrm tells the tale of he, ME AND ORSON WELLES

If there’s any film that best represents the current state of chaos in the industry right now it is ME AND ORSON WELLES. A festival favorite for the last year, this has long been considered a sure thing pick-up that just never found a studio to actually pick it up. People love it, it’s got a big up-and-coming star in a film that will have wide appeal as well as prove to be critic friendly. But everyone mysteriously passed on it, a sad sign of the state of indie acquisitions, leaving the film to self-distribute. Which is something of a small tragedy considering how good a film it really is.

ME AND ORSON WELLES is the latest offering from local Austin workhorse Richard Linklater and his first major work since his brilliant A SCANNER DARKLY. I’m exactly 50/50 on Linklater’s films, loving a full half of them and strongly disliking the others. And oddly enough it isn’t along indie/mainstream lines. I’m equally mixed on both his personal stuff and his studio work. This is one of his rare films in which he managed to make a film with mainstream appeal as one of his personal indies – and it really is quite good.

The film stars Zac Efron as the “ME” in the title, a fictional character named Richard Samuels who at the tender age of 17 gets a small role in the Mercury Theater production of CAESER, Orson Welles infamous/immortal 100 minute modern dress version of Shakespeare’s classic JULIUS CAESER. But make no mistake, while the film centers around the coming of age antics of Efron’s Samuels, he is not the center of the film. He is an intriguing tool through which Linklater gets to tell a story about Orson Welles.

ME AND ORSON WELLES is, at its heart, a film giving us an honest outside-looking-in view of Welles without having to deal with the issues of making him the main character. Rather than having to adhere to the general Biopic formula, we get to see Welles in his environment, both at his most likable and most detestable, in an unvarnished look at his genius and megalomania. Being able to see him through the likable eyes of a kid he gives his big break to, while also seeing him dick our protagonist around a bit, allows us to have someone likable to cling to without them having to soften Orson in the slightest.

Efron is fantastic here and is doing a great job slowly breaking away from his HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL roots. Every outing he’s had since his Disney days has allowed him to prove himself more and more and he appears to be only a dark role or two away from finally departing from his pretty boy image the same way Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp broke away from theirs. While I’m not entirely convinced that he’s playing on their level, I see a very similar glimmer in him that we saw from Depp in his 21 JUMPSTREET days and Pitt in his pre-12 MONKEYS, COOL WORLD/THE FAVOR/LEGENDS OF THE FALL era. He’s incredibly likable and nails the emotional peaks that Samuels endures at the hands of a raving egomaniac like Welles.

And of course the big story is Christian McKay, the relative newcomer who knocks his performance of Welles right out of the park. Welles is tricky. In this day and age his voice is best known as the basis for the inspiration of The Brain in PINKY & THE BRAIN and has long since joined the ranks of the likes of Cagney, Wayne, Nixon and Presley in the realm of accepted impressions that don’t actually sound like their subject. But McKay nails it and transcends simple imitation finding his way into the realm of immersion. His Welles is fascinating, a marvelous, charismatic, arrogant son of a bitch who you can’t take your eyes off of. Watching McKay do Welles doing Brutus is a special treat all its own that makes for a late movie snack capping off his performance perfectly.

Linklater constructs a wonderful tale here, bringing to bear all the things he does best. It is a sweet, coming of age period piece that tangles with the messiness of relationships while juggling a bevy of likable small characters each given just enough time to be interesting. While not compelling enough material to be among his very best films, this rests very easily in the higher end of his filmography. A solid, highly enjoyable film, it is one of those rare indies that I’m going to beseech you to seek out and see at the theater. Self-distributing this thing can’t be easy, and of all the things opening against it this holiday weekend, this is (along with THE ROAD) one of the best. It is certainly the more accessible of the two.

A delightful venture, ME AND ORSON WELLES is tailor made for film history buffs, theater fans or anyone who enjoys period dramas. Light, fun and a real treat, this opens in limited release this Thanksgiving.

Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.

NPR, Jeannette Catsoulis, 24 November 2009:

‘Me And Orson’: Welles, He’s Quite A Character

Whatever your opinion of Zac Efron, his casting as the lead in Me and Orson Welles was a savvy decision on the part of his director, Richard Linklater. Playing Richard Samuels, a wide-eyed 17-year-old who snags a tiny role in Welles’ legendary 1937 production of Julius Caesar, the floppy-haired star of High School Musical could attract audiences who have never heard of Welles (and would prefer never to have heard of Shakespeare). As a bonus, they’ll even get to see him play the lute.

That’s pretty much all the excitement you can expect from this faithful re-creation of a seminal moment in theatrical history. More deserving of admiration than love, Linklater’s pleasant-enough period piece connects the standard coming-of-age dots to impressive performances and a production design of astonishing authenticity. With the back lot of England’s Pinewood Studios standing in for New York City and the Isle of Man’s beautifully restored Gaiety Theatre standing in for the famed Mercury, this Brit-centric production is almost too perfect: It looks beautiful, but the artifice is distracting, as though a room at Madame Tussaud’s had suddenly sprung to life.

Based on Robert Kaplow’s carefully researched novel, the screenplay (by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo Jr.) follows the fictional Richard as a chance street encounter with Welles (played by the English stage actor Christian McKay) catapults the arts-obsessed teenager into the minor role of Lucius. Unfolding during the final week of rehearsals — and, we are led to believe, in the first week of the virginal boy’s adulthood — the movie gazes indulgently as Richard crushes on Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater’s ferociously ambitious Jill-of-all-trades.

Dispensing both practical advice and sex, Sonja is the romantic target of every man in the company, including the married Welles, whose pregnant wife requires regular shielding from the great man’s infamous indiscretions. Dazzled by this grown-up world and the theater luminaries around him — including John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (an astoundingly look-alike James Tupper) — Efron’s Richard soaks up the drama and basks in his mentor’s mercurial attention.

At 22, Welles was already a celebrated stage and radio star, and an arrogant, inexhaustible genius, and McKay’s marvelously effortless impersonation is the movie’s chief pleasure. Driving around in an ambulance to beat the traffic, spraying artfully-lit spittle with every impassioned speech, his Welles is believably charismatic and airily self-centered. The movie, like the theater company, revolves around him.

From archival photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, Linklater and his crew painstakingly re-create the stunning, deliberately fascist costuming and staging of the play (which Welles had retitled Caesar: Death of a Dictator). With Marc Blitzstein’s original score pulsing in the background and McKay’s Welles performing the role of Brutus, the brief excerpts reproduced here are unnervingly powerful.

The movie around them, however, is disappointingly fluffy, a weightless confection perfectly suited to Efron’s abilities. Appearing in virtually every scene, working his bangs and eyelashes to the max, he’s a likable device that never congeals into a real person. When his character bumps into fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (played to perfection by the British Museum), she asks him what he does. “I’m sort of an actor,” he tells her. He won’t get any argument from me.

California Literary Reviews, Zorianna Kit, 25 November 2009:

Movie Review: Me and Orson Welles

You can take Zac Efron out of Disney, but you can’t take Disney out of Zac Efron. In director Richard Linklater’s period piece Me and Orson Welles, the High School Musical actor tries to show he can break out of the Tiger Beat mold, but alas, this is not the project that will do it.

The pedigree of filmmaker Linklater, combined with the intrigue of a 1930s setting with legendary director Orson Welles in his pre-Hollywood days feels promising. However, it all goes out the window when in the first nine minutes of the film, Efron belts out a song on the New York City streets like he’s beginning another HSM number.

That’s not to say the audience should get up and walk away. Though Efron may be the Me in the film’s title, British actor Christian McKay as Welles is the focal point. Luckily, his performance carries the movie from beginning to end and makes it worth sitting through.

Based on the novel by Richard Kaplow, Welles stars Efron as Richard Samuels, a student and budding actor who gets swept up in the world of theater when he is cast in a small role in Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Caesar. Young and naïve, Richard tries hard to navigate through Welles’ tantrums, mind-games and mood-swings that range from charming to tyrannical.

Most of the film is your typical ‘cast-rehearsing-a-play’ story and showcases all the different characters that populate the theater including actors jockeying for stage time that Welles keeps deleting in an effort to showcase himself (he plays Brutus). There’s also the self-centered female lead (Kelly Reilly), the set designer (Al Weaver) and Welles’ plucky assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), the latter whom Efron falls for.

Obviously this can only spell disaster as Richard’s teenage heart is not equipped to handle a world where sleeping around for career reasons is practiced and accepted. Convinced he’s in love, Richard is in for a rude awakening which also leads to his downfall.

Holly Gent Palmo’s adapted screenplay weaves historical facts (yes, Welles did indeed put on this play at the Mercury Theater) with fiction (no, there never was a Richard Samuels). Additionally, Welles would have been 23 years old at the time he directed the play, yet McKay’s Welles looks at least 10 years older. McKay himself is 36.

Other than his age, McKay’s Welles is wonderful to watch. He is the heart and soul of this film and provides the gravitas to make the whole thing believable. By the time the movie is finished, you’re already craving a Welles biopic just so you can see how this legendary figure eventually makes his way to Hollywood where as we all know, he goes on to shoot the legendary feature Citizen Kane and marry actress Rita Hayworth among other feats.

Efron as Richard is not horrible. It’s just that his mannerisms are the same in every movie – and he’s done enough work now for it to be noticeable. Efron saunters around like he’s about to break into a dance number. He constantly flares his nostrils and you can see him suppressing the urge to act with his hands by thrusting them in his pant pockets – only to see them moving inside the material!

On top of that, Efron appears to always use the same five different facial expressions to convey emotion. Not because he’s genuinely feeling them as an actor would, but because the script says so. That may work in a Disney movie where the characters are meant to be easily labeled, but if Efron hopes to develop as an actor, he’s got to get more in touch with himself and his own capabilities.

It’s not like he doesn’t have it in him. Earlier this year Efron showed he possessed natural comedic chops in 17 Again, holding his own successfully against such comedic/improv talents as Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon.

Linklater has always been adept in working with newcomers and youngsters in films like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Fast Food Nation and the remake of Bad News Bears among others. Yet here he was not able to successfully take a commercial teen star like Efron and cross him over to an indie pic. Efron squeezes by using his charm and good looks, but as we all know, that can only take you so far.

Film School Rejects, Robert Levin, 25 November 2009:

Review: Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater returns to the big screen after a three year absence with Me and Orson Welles, a jazzy backstage coming of age picture. It’s a fast-moving period piece that chronicles the coming together of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar, it’s first. To borrow the Bard’s parlance, the film’s a lark.

The movie’s ultimate insignificance is not, however, a knock against it. While Me and Orson Welles rarely treads below the surface, it brings verisimilitude to its depiction of the New York theater scene and the world surrounding it, and a sort of classical energy to the proceedings. It’s strenuously old-fashioned, valuing personality and wit over clichéd pyrotechnics.

Fortunately, one of the personalities it so values happens to be the bombastic, brilliant one belonging to Welles (Christian McKay), who lords over the Mercury as his own personal fiefdom, instilling a mixture of fear, contempt and loyalty in everyone therein. McKay looks and sounds exactly like the real person, nailing the regal cadence of his voice and the haughtiness of his physical demeanor. Really, he gets everything down to the smallest, subtlest eye movements. It’s an extraordinary immersion that rivals the legendary portrayals of icons in movies past.

Let there be no confusion: Though Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school student dreaming of the world beyond the classroom, serves as the main character, this is McKay’s show. The scenes in which he’s not involved feel like various iterations of filler, mere window dressing before the main attraction shows up. The movie threatens to fly under the radar of a crowded end of the year marketplace, but it’d be shameful were the performance to go unrecognized.

There is the age-old “bright lights, big city” narrative, in which Richard flees the doldrums of school and small town life for New York. There, he audaciously approaches the company outside of the theater and wins a small part in the play. He falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), the secretary, hangs out with Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and gets a front row view of the tumultuous swings in tones and emotions that accompany the Orson Welles experience.

Efron shows some personality as Richard, convincingly adapting to the vocal stylizations and refined dialogue of the period. For the first time, the actor reveals some potential for breaking free from the High School Musical ghetto. He and Danes generate some nice chemistry, but their characters get along too well too quickly, robbing their scenes together of the snappy back and forth we’ve been accustomed to expect of big-city romances of the period. Screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel, imitate Howard Hawksian rhythms in their sculpting of the dialogue, but they never quite evoke the witty complexity of the verbal master at his best.

Still, Richard primarily serves as the audience’s doppelganger, the ticket into the magical world of the Mercury Theatre in its infancy, with the legendary exploits to come still ensconced in Orson Welles’ imagination. The primary attraction of the piece is the opportunity to watch this seminal work come together, to see the rehearsal process develop, to grow to understand Welles’ methods as a director and an actor and become acquainted with several other legendary individuals. With the rich corduroy browns that define its visual style, streets bustling with travelers and newsboys and elaborate recreations of city landmarks of the period, the film offers a vision of an era rarely seen on screen that aligns perfectly with its most famous past representations. In fact, Linklater’s work serves as an affectionate throwback, consciously made without much originality, in every way but one: McKay’s performance, which has an intense immediacy that’s all its own.

The Upside: Christian McKay is an amazing Orson Welles, nailing every facet of the legend’s physical demeanor and personality.

The Downside: The movie’s pretty lightweight, and at times it feels rather insubstantial.

On the Side: The film first showed at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, but the length of time it’s taken to be released is not indicative of its quality.

Grade: B

FilmShaft, Ed Whitfield, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles Review

Orson Welles lives again while poor old Zac Efron continues to struggle the first time around in Richard Linklater’s enjoyable tale of board treading, rubbing shoulders with history and first love.

Efron’s Richard Samuels is a mere whippersnapper in 1937 New York, who eyes a career on the stage. His encounter with the now legendary Mercury Theatre Company, lead by none other than theatrical, and later motion picture impresario, Orson Welles, proves fruitful, as he successful charms the notoriously fickle genius and secures a part in his new production of Julius Caesar. He also secures the eye of production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) which brings him into potential conflict with Welles and threatens his place in the troupe.

The tease of Linklater’s film, and the Robert Kaplow source novel, is the opportunity afforded to spend time with a young and as yet unburdened by self-doubt Orson Welles at the point at which he was already daring to experiment, flout convention and innovate. As any self-respecting cineaste knows, this is a path that lead to Citizen Kane in just a few years, still one of the best American films ever made and the best apologia for hubris and arrogance ever committed to celluloid. Here was a man who really had something to boast about.

If Efron’s dimpled youth is a bit of blank canvas, and in Zac’s capable hands he is just that, then that’s not entirely unwelcome, as it allows us to spend more time enjoying Christian McKay’s barnstorming rendition of the boy genius through the teenager’s eyes. McKay, who looks enough like the title character to convince physically as well as psychologically, inhabits Welles so completely that the actor dissolves under the cloak of the Director’s charm, hypocrisy, intellect and wit. “Orson has read everything – he knows everything” Danes reminds the dull eyed youth, and it’s that pressure to perform in the face of a perfectionist whose ego is both fragile as a rice paper condom and yet all consuming, that drives the story – setting up a series of flashpoint encounters in the legendary theatre, as the whole enterprise creaks under the weight of Welles’ expectations and a ticking clock.Of less interest is the fleeting romance between Samuels and Danes’ Sonja Jones. Danes, who hasn’t always convinced as a leading lady, acquits herself admirably here. Her Sonja is ambitious, touched by mischief and more than a little sassy, so what you may ask, interests her about Efron – who beyond his good looks, is deficient in all those qualities and spends a significant chunk of the running time looking startled with the occasional break for wholesome, and slightly folksy pronouncements on adolescent yearning? It’s a mystery that Linklater never satisfactorily resolves.

But it’s in the period detail and the hint of the Wellsian biopic that the film succeeds. Dick Pope’s photography casts the enterprise in vintage browns and greens and Laurence Dorman’s production design is as evocative as McKay’s performance. In this era of cinema to theatrical conversions, a movie that inverts the trend it very welcome indeed. Welles’ cinematic auteurship is foregrounded with some neat allusions to The Magnificent Ambersons, his butchered masterpiece and his stewardship of Shakespeare’s play. His attention to staging, lighting, the use of music and the dramatic flourish are the qualities that will be deployed to such devastating effect on Kane, Ambersons and later, Touch of Evil. This is the bright side of megalomania. A reminder that in the right hands it produces great artists and in those who aren’t so capable, mass murder. “Let’s rip their throats out” says Welles in one scene, temporarily conflating the career trajectories of both camps. It’s a tribute to the power of his personality that he still does, even when channelled by another actor.

3 ½ out of 5

BuzzSugar, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles: A Likeable Film for Theater-Lovers

Zac Efron can act, people! Okay, so he’s not going to win an Oscar for his performance in Me and Orson Welles, but he does take a step away from the tween territory of High School Musical and 17 Again to prove that he can hold his own among more experienced performers.

Efron stars as the “Me” in Me and Orson Welles, an over confident aspiring young actor named Richard whose only prior work includes a couple of high school productions — until he lucks into a bit part in Welles’s stage production of Julius Caesar. Richard has a romanticized view of theater, but once he enters Welles’s company, he’s forced to learn the real nature of what goes on behind the scenes.

Ready to burst his bubble is his new mentor, Orson Welles (Christian McKay). A philanderer and liar with an inflated ego, Welles takes Richard under his wing but knocks him down at the same time. Throw into the mix Welles’s tenacious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) who makes goo-goo eyes at the young guy, and it’s clear that Richard is in way over his head (even though he seems clueless about it).

British actor Christian McKay as Welles is larger than life — he plays the role as if the director is always acting and putting on a show, even in his personal moments. Welles could be an unlikeable character, but McKay makes him a guy you love to hate. Even though Efron is the more recognizable face and handles his role well, McKay’s performance is the one most critics will talk about.

The film is enjoyable, but it fails to pull you in. My biggest concern is that it won’t find an audience. Older viewers might appreciate Welles and the music of the era, but the appeal of Efron might be lost on them. On the other hand, Efron’s fans might find the Welles element to be a snooze. Honestly, it’s probably best suited to those who have a passion for theater. I enjoyed watching rehearsals with the Caesar cast (which features a ragtag mix of faces, including Ben Chaplin and James Tupper). The office politics and mini-breakdowns that take place before the curtain goes up make the film fun.

My advice? If you do choose to see it on the big screen, catch it quickly before it goes to rental.

3 out of 5

UGO Movie Blog, Matt Patches, 24 November 2009:

Another Linklater Movie You Didn’t Know Was Coming Out!

Director Richard Linklater is the definition of niche filmmaker. I have no idea who gambles their money to make his diverse films (think Waking Life, Before Sunset, Fast Food Nation, and A Scanner Darkly) that barely register on the general population’s radars, but I can’t say I mind.

Me and Orson Welles, a recounting of Welles’ famed staging of the Shakespeare tragedy Julius Ceaser, is in that boat. Instead of developing a cohesive and engrossing narrative, Linklater composes a love letter to theater, spearheaded by the larger-than-life Orson Welles. What could have been a performance of exaggeration or spoof is instead an examination of the charismatic sociopath, elegantly executed by newcomer Christian McKay. It’s McKay’s turn as Welles and Linklater’s depiction of his directorial process that carries the film.

But not all is well and good at the Mecury Theater.

The other half of the film (that would be the “Me” in Me in Orson Welles) is Zac Efron (High School Musical) doing what Zac Efron does best: smiling, looking smug, and hop-skipping his way through the picture. Efron’s Richard is a aspiring actor who accidently lands a part in Orson’s Ceaser only to see it sweep up his education and romantic life.

But Efron’s out of place in the movie; his teeth are too white, his face too glossy for a gritty setting like 1930s New York. Maybe he should have skipped the tanning salon for a week? While he can certainly croon a number that would have ladies fainting, Efron can’t hold a candle to McKay’s spitfire Welles, or even Claire Danes as Sonja, Welles’ assistant at the Mercury. It’s not a good sign when you wish you were watching Newsies.

There’s a reason it took two 600 page books to tell Orson Welles’ story (which I highly recommend): he was part creative genius, part self-destructive nightmare. A great character. Me and Orson Welles succeeds in establishing that, but bores when its focus shifts to Efron’s flighty coming-of-age problems. Come on Zac, didn’t you know you couldn’t go head-to-head with Unicron!

Shakespeare enthusiasts can catch this film when it’s released in New York and LA on November 25th.

Grade: B

Digital Spy, Lara Martin, 26 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Firmly putting his High School Musical days behind him, Zac Efron stars in this coming of age drama about one boy’s experience with the legendary Orson Welles. A million miles away from the bubblegum colours of East High, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the fictional historical novel by Robert Kaplow provides a realistic, if slow burning, look at life beind the scenes of a 1930s play, as Welles prepares to stage his famous recreation of Julius Caesar, assisted by a string of theatre greats.

It’s 1937 and wide-eyed, apsiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron) is desperate to carve out a career in the theatre. By a stroke of luck, he encounters a 22-year-old Orson Welles (McKay) on the street outside the Mercury Theatre and manages to nab a small but pivotal role in his hero’s latest play. But, with just one week until opening night, he soon learns that Welles is an unpredictable and difficult man who refuses to take criticism or appease the people around him. Making his life slightly easier is ice queen Sonja Jones (Danes), a production assistant who takes him under her wing and later initiates a passionate romance.

While the story is told through the eyes of Richard, it’s evident that the indispensible protagonist of the movie is Welles. His larger-than-life persona steals every scene, whether he is indulging in extra-marital affairs, commandeering ambulances for easy transport or simply lolling in the background. Newcomer McKay, who first played the role on Broadway, is stunning in his ability to nail the mannerisms, characteristics and voice of the theatre legend, while also exuding a strange vulnerability, as evidenced in his relationship with Richard. Quite simply, when he is on screen everyone else fades into the background.

That being said, Efron more than manages to hold his own in an unfamiliar genre. He shines in his transformation from awe-inspired hero worship to a more grounded relationship with Welles, while his friendship with quirky Gretta (Kazan) – an oddball writer who recites odes to Grecian urns – is peppered with humour and genuine affection. The only downside is his often unconvincing romance with Sonja. We’re told repeatedly that she is the most desirable woman in the company but her cold exterior and bland personality make it difficult to see why. While both actors undoubtedly deliver solo, they fail to spark as a couple, highlighted by their initial rendezvous at Welles’s secret home where Sonja plays the seductress and Richard looks like a lost schoolboy.

Based on real-life events, with the exception of the fictional Richard, the plotline at times becomes muddled, as viewers are assumed to have some knowledge of Welles and his contemporaries. Nevertheless, you can’t fail to be impressed by the luscious portrayal of the theatre as Welles stages his amazingly modern adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. Linklater’s attention to detail is extraordinary, from the visible spit of the over-pronunicating actors to the subtle lighting and dramatic special effects. He guides us through the entire process of staging a play, from the rehearsals, to superstitions, to dangers with scenery, before we are paid off with a glorious final performance, visually stunning in its simplicity and featuring a monologue by Welles and bittersweet song from Richard.

There’s no doubt that Me And Orson Welles is a sharp contrast to Efron’s Disney days and will probably not appeal to his younger fans. But, as as Will Young’s starring turn in Mrs Henderson Presents proved, there might still be something here to attract the less obvious audience and perhaps open the life and times of Orson Welles to a new generation.

3 out of 5

New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman, 25 November 2009:

Zac Efron does fine, but ‘Me and Orson Welles’ most notable for uncovering Christian McKay

“Me and Orson Welles” will be known best as the film in which Zac Efron – the “me” in the movie’s name – took his first, tentative steps beyond the teen market. But it’s the second half of the title that matters more.

Surprisingly conventional by director Richard Linklater’s standards, this pleasant, low-key dramedy is most memorable for the discovery of co-star Christian McKay.

Technically, though, this is Efron’s story, or at least that of his character, Richard. A wide-eyed student in 1937, all Richard really wants to do is act. And not in high school musicals, mind you, but on Broadway.

He gets his chance when Welles (McKay) offhandedly casts him in a soon-to-be-famous staging of “Julius Caesar.” As opening night approaches, Richard faces an intimidating list of challenges, from Welles’ unpredictable behavior to a growing crush on the elusive production assistant (Claire Danes). There are also run-ins with colleagues like Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who resent his inexperience.

The movie, adapted from a historical novel by Robert Kaplow, makes a point of its own theatricality. The New York we see looks like a set (much of the movie was shot in Great Britain). Large parts of the dialogue feel delivered rather than spoken, and the actors portray characters, like ambitious starlets or smooth ladies’ men, that are more recognizable from film than real life.

Likable as it is, however, there is little depth to this project, which Linklater seems to consider a bit of a trifle. And that makes it the perfect choice for a heartthrob slowly inching toward a respected, or at least respectable, acting career.

No one would have remembered Efron’s performance if he’d been an unknown, but since it’s as amiably breezy as the film itself, no one’s likely to denounce it, either.

People will, however, continue talking about British newcomer McKay, whose most notable experience has been portraying Welles onstage. Now that we know he can handle an impersonation of considerable complexity, it will be interesting to see the characters he’ll create on his own.

The L Magazine, Michael J. Rowin, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

The problem is there in the title. Anyone who cares about 20th-century American theater and cinema would welcome a film about Welles, but who’s this “me” to whom we’re supposed to pay equal attention? A dull seventeen-year-old drama geek named Richard Samuels? Played by Zac Efron?!

This being a film by Richard Linklater, it’s only appropriate we view the genius director of the nascent Mercury Theatre from the eyes of a passionate young ‘un. But Welles himself was only 22 in 1937, making it all the more frustrating that screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel) steer away from the make-or-break backstage drama of the Mercury’s anti-fascist re-imagining of Julius Caesar to focus on Richard’s stilted coming-of-age tale. Richard worships Welles and learns harsh romantic lessons via the great man’s opportunistic mistress (Claire Danes)—yet with every close-up of the brutally uncharismatic Efron we see not the outsized emotions of a naive teenager willing to do anything for art and love, but a Tiger Beat cover with a Depression-era hairstyle.

Yet whenever British actor Christian McKay commands the screen as Welles, Linklater’s film comes alive. Employing a perfect physical and vocal imitation, McKay evokes the arrogant, manipulative, intimidating, yet undoubtedly brilliant Welles, never better than in a scene where the cigar-smoking, baby-faced actor glides into a radio studio, uses a sleight-of-hand trick to flirt with a secretary, and then improvs a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into his script. Cut out the “Me and” and Linklater’s entire film could have been this magical.

Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells,23 November 2009:

McKay’s Triumph. (Really.)

Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (Freestyle, 11.25) is an appealing, decently assembled, light-hearted period…drama? There’s something a little sluggish-sounding about that term that doesn’t quite fit the film’s spirit, and “dramedy” isn’t right either. I guess “coming of age story” works. MAOW only goes so deep but that’s okay for the most part. It’s a pat and tidy effort (i.e., nothing terribly jazzy or unruly in its veins) but with a wound-up, young man’s personality. Agreeably so. The actors and actresses hit their marks, say their lines and do their utmost to be vivid or colorful.

Zac Efron isn’t half bad as a young buck who lands a role in Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Ceasar and experiences the usual wake-ups. He gets hired, inspired, mind-fucked, toyed with, responds like a high-school kid and ends up getting emotionally screwed over as he learns about the exhilarations of acting in a groundbreaking New York stage show as well as the deceit, insincerity, lying, game-playing and two-faced manipulations that go with the territory.

Holly Gent Palmo’s screenplay, based on Robert Kaplow’s book, takes place 72 friggin’ years ago so it naturally feels…well, not old-fashioned but, you know, “steeped in the atmosphere of a bygone era” and all that. There’s something in the mood and pace of Linklater’s film that suggests it could have easily been performed on live TV for Playhouse 90 back in the ’50s.

And tonally this feels right. Linklater knew what he was doing and shot it the right way with the right flavor and whatnot. He time-tripped back to the world of 1937 and made this piece come alive as best he could, and kudos for that. Even though he must have known from the get-go that Me and Orson Welles would almost certainly be a dead box-office duck.

This period parlor-drama quality is one reason why it took so long to get a theatrical deal after MAOW played at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.

It’s about as far as you can get from a run-of-the-mill Eloi movie, despite the good looking (okay, cute), professionally focused and well-behaved Efron — a female Eloi favorite for his Hairspray and High School Musical roles — playing the lead part of Richard Samuels, who’s supposed to be 17.

The problem is that in this setting/context Efron means absolutely nothing commercially. You could assemble a group of 100 squealing Eloi girls and tell them they have to watch Efron in this new Orson Welles film that starts in 45 minutes or they’ll all be hunted down the next day and machine-gunned to death in their homes, and 10 or 15 of them might buy tickets. Maybe.

But Me and Orson Welles is absolutely worth seeing for Christian McKay’s thunderbolt performance as the 22 year-old Welles — a tempestuous headstrong genius in his hormonal-visionary cups. Vincent Donofrio was a fine Welles in Ed Wood (although someone else voiced the dialogue) and Liev Schreiber delivered a reasonably full-bodied Welles in RKO 281, but McKay — 34 or 35 when the film was shot, and looking like he could be 28 or 29 — is the madman. He’s the standard-bearer and the king of the hill, the guy to beat the next time somebody plays Welles.

Film Freak Central, Ian Pugh, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Similarly, find a winking allusion to historical/artistic precedent in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, as the titular wunderkind (Christian McKay) wonders aloud how he could possibly top his theatrical production of Julius Caesar in 1937. It turns out to be a relevant theme, though, when Welles, in need of a Lucillus, hires Richard (Zac Efron), a precocious lad of seventeen eager to jumpstart his artistic career at the Mercury. Efron valiantly attempts to carry a film on his own accord (despite a certain blandness, he proves that being the only bearable aspect of the High School Musical series wasn’t quite a fluke), but he’s nothing compared to the self-conscious artist/brute looming over his character. While it’s tempting to say that everything and everyone are overshadowed by McKay’s pitch-perfect imitation (one that captures the artist in all his legendary brilliance, ego, and cruelty), it’s really the spectre of Welles himself that haunts Me and Orson Welles. The picture’s about the hope that a proximity to genius will force it to rub off on the rest of us–a point never made clearer than when our boy brushes a writer friend’s manuscript against Keats’ Grecian Urn. For all its conclusions about the virtues of going your own path and forging your own memories, Richard’s story ends up completely absorbed by Welles, or at least the reputation that preceded him; he’s a regular Holly Martins, an unknowing child-amateur destined to fail against the devil’s charisma. (Even Claire Danes’ Sonja, the objet d’amour of the piece and a major point of contention among the central players, is merely a pale imitation of Alida Valli’s Anna Schmidt.) Me and Orson Welles feels like it belongs on the stage–and maybe that’s appropriate, but it doesn’t forgive the stiltedness of it. What’s more, rather than act as a reflection of the titular artist’s work, it seems like it would prefer you not give it a second thought when Welles’ own tales of great but flawed men are there for the taking. When was the last time you saw Citizen Kane, anyway?

2 out of 4

Santa Monica Daily Press, Taylor Van Arsdale, 25 November 2009:

Efron comes of age in ‘Me and Orson Welles’

When I tell you the feel-good, comedic, coming of age flick for the holiday season takes place in New York during the 1930s you might incredulously think, “Yeah, right.” So brace yourself for this next revelation — it also involves William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as envisioned by iconic American actor, Orson Welles.

It’s 1937 and for aspiring actors the Mercury Theatre is the place to be. In “Me and Orson Welles,” Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a plucky actor with chutzpah who ingratiates himself into the world surrounding legendary actor Orson Welles (brilliantly played by newcomer Christian McCay) as he prepares his version of “Julius Caesar,” billed as “Caesar: Death of a Dictator.”

Efron is spectacular and charming. His blue eyes sparkle with unbridled idealism as he delves deeper than we’ve seen in any “High School Musical.” We’ve all been this character at one point or another in our lives so you can’t help but root for him. When he wins the role of “Lucius” he inquires as to what became of the actor whom he’s replacing. Another cast member gently warns, “He had a personality problem with Orson — meaning he had a personality.” And so begins the protagonist’s inherent struggle: will he simply “go along and get along” to get what he wants or will he stand up for the ideals in which he believes? The film’s denouement answers this question — which I’m not going to give away.

Welles, however is quite the character; he grandstands, is both mercurial and brilliant while manipulating his cast and crew, has affairs with most of his leading ladies, and keeps an ambulance waiting outside so that he may travel uptown whilst avoiding the crunch of traffic. Samuels, like those around him, is clearly under the spell of the larger-than-life Welles.

A scene at a radio station demonstrates the breadth of Welles’ talent, which far exceeds those of his fellow thespians. During a ride uptown, (in his ambulance, of course) he reads to Samuels text he has memorized from Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Once at the radio station, he invites Samuels to watch and see “how it’s done.” As the live show begins, Welles veers off script, seamlessly injecting his rehearsed “Ambersons” dialogue. The radio show’s producer, who clearly has no idea what’s going on, lauds Welles for his extemporaneous take. We know the “extemporaneous” improvisation is the result of Welles’ calculating genius.

The film, which addresses many of the myths surrounding the iconic Welles, is largely fictionalized from Robert Kaplow’s eponymous novel. For Linklater, “the biggest piece of the puzzle was finding the right guy to play Orson.” A few months after optioning the project, Kaplow sent Linklater an e-mail, letting him know there was, “a guy performing a play in New York at this 50-seat theatre … called ‘Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.'” Linklater flew to New York and knew he had found the perfect actor to portray Welles on screen. Also of note are Claire Danes as the ambitious Girl Friday, Sonja Jones and James Tupper who captures perfectly the role of Joseph Cotton.

Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” has an exuberance about it; an idealistic energy — enhanced by the pace of Manhattan, circa 1937. Writers Vince Palmo, Jr. (a former Santa Monica resident) and his wife, Holly Gent Palmo have constructed a real quality film. It’s not simply a great film, but a great film with a heart.

Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf, 26 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Earlier this year, Amy Adams whined her way through Julie & Julia as a modern-day food blogger, when all we really hungered for was more of Meryl Streep’s magically right Julia Child. So take the title of Me and Orson Welles as a slight warning. Yes, the Citizen Kane director figures prominently—and gloriously—in this 1937-set theatrical backstage drama. But in the spotlight, there’s a blandly eager high-schooler (Efron, unable to penetrate the cute), who’s conscripted into the zesty goings-on. Would someone please drag him offstage already? There’s a rising star in the wings.

Britain’s Christian McKay has already played Welles to great acclaim Off Broadway; his impersonation here is nothing short of astounding. Just to be totally clear, this is not the sprawling Mount Orson of the director’s latter years (or even of Touch of Evil). It’s the young phenom who terrorized the radio waves, tore around Manhattan in an ambulance and chased skirt on his way to Shakespearean glory. McKay effortlessly captures the man’s arrogance, sparring with tireless producer John Houseman (Happy-Go-Lucky’s fuming Marsan), but he’s even better with Welles’s sly invitation of a wink, drawing all to his bidding, happily. The voice is uncanny too.

Me and Orson Welles preoccupies itself with some romantic tussles—nice enough, but nothing on McKay’s dynamic moments of ego. Maybe this is a good time to mention that the director is Richard Linklater, usually a lot more versatile. Try to imagine a version of Linklater’s School of Rock that didn’t pivot on the manic music teacher played by Jack Black but instead, perhaps, on his boring roommate. That’s what you have here. Had Welles been in charge, there’d be no contest., Pam Grady, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

The question for director Richard Linklater and teen icon Zac Efron is this: Will the tweens and teens who made Efron a nascent superstar when they swooned over his turn as basketball hero turned thespian Troy Bolton in High School Musical follow him as he charts a new path in his career? The 20 year old actor is still in high school in Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, but as a Depression-era youth who crosses paths with a legend he is traipsing through territory light years away from today’s world of cliques, text messages and Facebook pages. Without the kids, the mannered but amusing dramedy’s box office fortunes look moderate, a magnet for mature filmgoers, especially that subset of the audience enthralled by showbiz lore and Welles’ larger-than-life persona. But if the young ones pursue their idol, returns could pick up substantially.

In 1937 New York, Efron is Richard Samuels, a theater-obsessed teen who dreams of someday acting on Broadway. His chance comes sooner than he could have ever anticipated when he stumbles upon 22 year old Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his Mercury Theatre Company. The actor/director/producer takes an immediate shine to the brash youth and casts him on the spot as Lucius in his upcoming production of Julius Caesar, opening one week hence.

What begins as a once in a lifetime opportunity for a kid who has not even started his career turns into an eye-opening, whirlwind education. Certainly, no high school drama teacher could have prepared Richard for an outsized personality like Welles, a capricious egoist who rides around in an ambulance so that he doesn’t have to worry about traffic delays and who regards the Mercury Theatre as a kind of fiefdom. Nor could Richard’s limited experience with high school girls prepare him for a woman like Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’ assistant, herself awaiting her big break, but in the meantime only too willing to encourage a school boy’s crush.

Fellow actors Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) take Richard under their wing during a week in which the entire production seems on the verge of spinning out of control, despite the best efforts of Welles’ partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), to keep it on track. But Lloyd’s and especially Cotton’s counsel can only go so far. Richard quickly bonds with the company, only to discover that the theatrical fraternity he has long imagined is not exactly what it seems and never could be with the unpredictable Welles at the helm.

Efron and the rest of the large ensemble are all excellent, but this adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel lives or dies by its Welles. Linklater chose well in casting British newcomer McKay, and not just because the actor is a dead ringer for—if a good decade older than—the young Welles. More vital to the character than the physical resemblance is the way McKay captures the spirit of the man, his enormous charm, intelligence and zest and also his arrogance, pettiness and volatility. A Who’s Who of great actors have previously played Welles on the screen, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston and Angus MacFadyen, but McKay’s powerful, charismatic performance may be the best yet.

Linklater, who shot most of the film in the U.K., does not attempt to create a realistic portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s. Instead, he adopts a heightened theatricality, which works both for and against the movie. On the plus side, the style emphasizes the wit of Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.’s screenplay as the actors toss the funny, sparkling dialogue back and forth with deadpan aplomb. But the artificiality also underlines the story’s superficiality.

Me and Orson Welles is certainly a buoyant diversion, but also lighter than air and ultimately forgettable. It is pleasant enough and will provide an education to any of Efron’s young fans who do turn up, but McKay’s stellar turn deserves something much more substantial than this trifling bonbon.

3 1/2 out of 5

Movie City News, Michael Wilmington, 26 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles (Three and a Half Stars)

In Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, a director whose films I usually like, takes on a highly ambitious subject that really appeals to me — a portrayal of the astonishing youthful theatrical triumphs of the 22-year-old Welles, his adroit and urbane (and long-suffering) producer John Houseman, and of their ingenious, experimental 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — and does them all really proud. Hail Caesar! Hail Orson! Hail Houseman! Hail Mercury players, past and present, real and recreated! And of course, Hail Richard — Linklater, that is.

Linklater’s movie is wonderfully acted, written and directed –a charming, exhilarating and exciting evocation of a thrilling era and some magnificent show people. At its center is one of the most extraordinary, and truly brilliant film performances of the year: the young actor Christian McKay’s amazing evocation of Orson Welles at 22.

Other actors who‘ve played Welles in the past, like Vincent D’Onofrio in Ed Wood or Angus Macfadyen in The Cradle Will Rock, have tended to get part of the persona: the resonant voice, the impish face, the huge physicality. But McKay gets it all. He looks like Welles, sounds like Welles (catching the rhythms, delivery, style and timbre, if not quite as deep a basso profundo), smiles like Welles, roars like Welles, and, whether sliding into radio’s The Shadow or into Shakespeare’s Brutus, noblest Roman of them all, even acts like Welles.

This is an utterly convincing portrayal physically. And it also, crucially, suggests Welles’ inner being: the extraordinary genius and intimidating energy, his vaulting ambition and also his demonic, self-destructive qualities. We can believe that McKay‘s Orson is capable of this Julius Caesar and the Kane to come. And we can also believe that he’s a hedonistic conniver capable of betraying his friends (like Houseman), tyrannizing his cast and crew and wounding his own career. Is an amazing job, a thrilling feat of humanity-catching. If this year’s “best actor” Oscar nominations don’t include McKay‘s Welles, they’ll be a fraud –much like the 1941 Hearst-fueled mass Oscar snubbing of Citizen Kane and (except for the script) of Welles himself.

Almost equally impressive are the films’ John Houseman, played with the right blend of cogency and exasperation by Eddie Marsan, the obsessed driving teacher of Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky. And Ben Chaplin as the tormented patrician George Coulouris (Kane’s Thatcher, playing Antony in the play), Leo Bill as the elfin prankster Norman Lloyd, and James Tupper, whose Joseph Cotton captures the Wellesian actor/crony‘s elegance and bemusement almost as perfectly as McKay catches Welles.

Zac Efron’s young theatre student Richard Samuels, the witness to all this (after Welles picks him to play Brutus’ Lucius on the street before the Mercury) is a passably charming and likable job, not an impressive performance, like some of the others, but good enough to pass. Perhaps we shouldn‘t carp. It’s not Efron‘s fault that he got a box-office dreamboat ranking for that dopey, trivial smash hit, High School Musical. There are two other fictional characters here that also strike a chord: Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adle, the aspiring New Yorker short story writer whose music shop meeting with Richard kicks off the story, and Claire Danes as the friendly “ice princess” Sonja Jones, whose sexual power over all the “Caesar“ men, triggers a climactic flare-up.

Linklater, whose own triumphs range from Slacker to Before Sunrise to School of Rock, is a sometimes wonderful filmmaker, a comic humanist who’s obviously fallen in love with his terrific subject: young Welles and the world around him. Linklater tries, mostly successfully, to give us the creative ferment of American society, drama, and media in 1937, fueled by the Depression and the gathering war clouds in Europe, in a welter of pop politics both radical and reactionary, of burgeoning social change and cultural upheaval.

At its edges, is the movie‘s witness, young Richard. And, at its center is the young Orson, the amazing prodigy who conquered American radio and the stage in his early twenties and then headed West to Hollywood and Citizen Kane. That’s in the future here, but not too far in the future; at one point we seem to see Welles struck and mulling over visions of Kane (or something to top Caesar) in his mind.

But meanwhile, there’s Caesar, with the young Richard as our observer — watching as Welles keeps the company in a constant state of creative excitement and panic: dropping and adding scenes at will, conducting multiple love affairs, racing by hired ambulance to his radio Shadow gigs, nurse-maiding and fathering and seducing his cast, and giving Caesar the contemporary resonance — with a fascist takeover– that he and Houseman (who has to straighten out all his messes) are sure will create an explosive success.

What follows is one of the best backstage dramas ever, a valentine to the theatre like Marcel Carne’s and Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise, and a lovely distillation of a wondrous time. (Not the least of Me and Orson Welles‘s pleasures is the superb period old record score, heavy on Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and other ’30s jazz greats.)

I loved Me and Orson Welles and I hope it attains at least a modest success too, a warm connection to the audience (especially the movie buff audience) that it richly deserves. Sadly, when I went to the L. A. opening night screening at Landmark, the crowd was tiny, a fraction of the packed houses elsewhere for the gloomy and mediocre New Moon and the exciting but ridiculous 2012. Me and Orson Welles has it all over either of those bloated hits, topping them in everything but nonstop world destruction and neck-biting. Like McKay’s Welles, it puts on a great show with a seemingly modest budget. It shows us again what we love about the theatres, media, pop and high culture, and, finally, the movies. It also shows us, through McKay’s alchemy, the spitting image of a giant of them all.

The Epoch Times, Joe Bendel, 27 November 2009:

Movie Review: ‘Me and Orson Welles’

Paying Homage to the Master of Drama

The inaugural production of the Mercury Theatre had to make a suitably bold statement. In what was then a radical departure from tradition (but has since become conventional), Welles recast Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Fascist Europe. Though the Mercury’s production of Caesar: Death of a Dictator was truly groundbreaking, the true star was Brutus, played by company cofounder and artistic director Orson Welles.

Though in 1937 the Great Depression continued unabated while Fascism spread across Europe, it was still a heady time for one teenaged actor who witnesses the chaos of Welles’s creative process firsthand in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which opens this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

British actor George Coulouris had the lead role of Mark Antony. Joseph Cotton had a small part as Publius. Yet the two actors best remembered from Welles’s celebrated Caesar, were of course the director himself, and the young Lucius, who serenaded Brutus in a pivotal late scene. In Linklater’s film, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, that young actor is a wide-eyed Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron), who yearns to be part of the New York smart set. However, working for the tempestuous auteur would be an education in and of itself for the young actor.

Welles can be charming, but he is also a demanding taskmaster. Though married, he has quite the roving eye. Yet his genius compensates for his arrogance—at least up to a point. In some of the film’s most insightful scenes, the brash Welles seems to understand on some level that he is just one failure away from a major karma blowback.

Given the renowned figures associated with the Mercury, Linklater had a number of casting challenges, but none was greater than the larger-than-life Welles. Yet, in choosing the virtually unknown Christian McKay, he found an actor able to approximate Welles’s incomparable presence, without descending into mere impersonation. Discovered while performing in the very off-off-Broadway production Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, McKay captures both the cadences and intensity of the Welles so familiar from his classic films.

In another tricky bit of casting, Eddie Marsan’s small but important supporting turn as John Houseman, the great British character actor (by way of Hungary), is absolutely pitch-perfect. His Houseman is an island of modest dignity amid the bedlam loosed by Welles’s destructive genius. While it is an even smaller role, Canadian actor James Tupper is also quite convincing as Joseph Cotton.

In a way, it is rather appropriate that High School Musical star Zac Efron would have the lead in a film about the capriciousness of show business. In fact, he is relatively likable as young Samuels. Unfortunately, his love triangle rivalry with Welles for the affections of the director’s cold-bloodedly ambitious assistant Sonja Jones forms the weakest link of the film. In truth, Claire Danes’s Jones is decidedly unsympathetic and far less attractive than Samuels’s prospective girlfriend, Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan).

The film is utterly unlike Linklater’s prior work (including films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused), but he clearly has a keen understanding of Orson Welles’s place in cinema history. He keeps the action moving along fairly jauntily, while paying knowing homage to Welles’s brilliant but checkered career.

Technorati, Anya Arts Maven, 11 November 2009:

Zac Efron Shines In Me and Orson Welles

Zac Efron stars as aspiring young actor Richard Samuels in this entertaining film set in 1937, inserted into the real life story of Orson Welles’ landmark staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In the space of a mere week before opening night, Richard talks himself into a role in the play, has a budding affair with an older woman (Claire Danes as the production manager) and has his heart bruised and his pride likewise, against the sharp edges of unabashed ambition and over sized ego.

Efron’s solid as the center of the film and our way into this story about the fragile magic of theater and some of the realities behind what transpires on stage. He turns in an entirely convincing performance with just the right range, from the kind of bravado that gets him the opportunity – as in this scene in front of the Mercury Theatre – to the naive vulnerability that sees him blindsided by backstage politics and the calculated maneuvering of his colleagues.

If Efron’s our window into the story, its center has to be the brilliant performance of newcomer Christian McKay as a young Welles. We get a real sense of the man’s sparkling genius, along with his impossibly capricious, self indulgent persona, the director with a penchant for keeping the entire company waiting while he chases the latest winsome young lady to cross his path. He tells Richard he’s a “God created actor,” and it sounds like a compliment until he explains the hollowness inside it, the empty space from which the desire to become someone else springs.

Welles’ historic production edited the Bard’s play and set it in modern times in Fascist Italy. I dabble in a little acting myself, not much, but enough to know that the film handily captures the roller-coaster chemistry of putting on a show, the sense of being at the mercy of a director’s whims (sigh!) and of the whole production forever teetering on the brink of disaster. With its peppy pace and a raft of amusing peripheral characters from John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) you won’t need any special appreciation of things theatrical to enjoy what really amounts to an accelerated coming of age story. Richard emerges a little older and much wiser, and as history tells the tale, Welles innovative production won him raves from audiences and critics alike, and cemented his early reputation.

Reel Talk Move Reviews, John P. McCarty, 24 November 2009:


Richard Linklater’s paean to the performing arts, from Robert Kaplow’s novel, pits an omnivorous genius against a high-school kid. Set backstage at Welles’ nascent Mercury Theater in 1937, the fictional tussle is hardly fair or surprising, but we’re reminded that an illusion needn’t be deep to be effective. The budding thespian (Zac Efron) cast in a modern-dress production of “Julius Caesar” seems too polished, which is partly why the movie’s first two-thirds are eminently watchable yet unexceptional. During the final act, however, sparks fly when he’s bested by Welles, adroitly channeled by Christian McKay. There are worse ways to come of age than slathered in greasepaint. (PG-13) GOOD DRAMA.

Indie Movies Online, Stieg Ingarsson, 28 October 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater revisits Orson Welles’s theatre company and puts Zac Efron centre stage. It’s a crazy combination says Stieg Ingarsson, but by gawd, it might just work.

If you were making a film set in 1937 about the Mercury Theatre and the great Orson Welles, I somehow doubt that the cheeky teen star of the High School Musical franchise would be top of your list for a central role. But then you’re not Richard Linklater. The man behind such arthouse favourites as Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunrise and School Of Rock (ahem) is back with Me And Orson Welles, and his leading man is non other than Zac Efron himself. Fortunately, and before you all burst blood vessels, our Zac is cast in the role of the ‘Me’ of the title, rather than the fiery giant of stage and screen.

Efron is Richard Samuels, a kid still in school but with big dreams of stardom, who stumbles into a production of Julius Caesar through some nifty snare drum work and an ad jingle. Once in, and with the small part of Lucius his own (a role that mainly involves playing a ukelele disguised as a lute), he is on a rollercoaster of confrontation, romance and theatre, darling, as the Mercury company tries to get the doors open on time.

Starting relatively slowly, the film initially overindulges on the thespian references, with lots of knowing in-jokes about the theatre. The one thing actors seemingly struggle to do well is play actors; they are too hammy in their self-parody, perhaps needing to emphasise the subtlety of their own performances. But once it has settled in, the company is strong, with a brilliant turn from Ben Chaplin as an over-confident star who suffers from severe panic attacks; and some engaging stuff from the rapidly rising Leo Bill.

Claire Danes plays Sonja – the theatre administrator assigned to the role of minding young Samuels – and does so with some aplomb. She is always believable as the object of the actors’ lustful desires, a hard-headed woman who does whatever is necessary necessary to further her career. But you can’t talk about this film without flying the flag for the two male leads. Zac Efron is a revelation. Likeable and compelling to watch, you’ll be rooting for him throughout (despite the occasional desire to holler ‘Go Wildcats’ when things go well). It’s impossible to say, yet, whether he will ever shake off High School Musical but in taking this role, he has taken a large step towards establishing himself as a serious actor.

And another serious actor is required to play the biggest role of them all, Orson Welles himself. Christian McKay, a star of the boards rather than the silver screen, is quite simply brilliant in the role of a loud, brash bully who no-one likes but everyone respects. It’s no surprise he’s been nominated for a British Independent Film Award for most promising newcomer. His presence fills the screen and the whole experience seems somehow smaller when he is absent.

Stylistically, the film is fabulous. The costumes, the sets, the props all recreate the Big Apple atmosphere of the 1930s, and a Duke Ellington-led soundtrack completes the effect beautifully.

Me and Orson Welles is a good film: it’s warm, entertaining and amusing. It’s not, however, a great film. I struggled to see the need for what must have been a ten minute montage of the play towards the end. It’s a common flaw of plays within film:s either we have been told how wonderful the production is, and then it fails to impress, or as in this case, after an hour or so of self-parody the cast appear determined to prove that they can do Shakespeare. The abridged Julius Caesar they put on may mollify their egos, but it does so at a cost to the film’s pace. Some of the casting was also questionable. Eddie Marsan’s harassed theatre manager, for example, fails to convince.

It’s another positive addition to the Linklater canon. He’s a director who is becoming more diverse with every film he makes, and this one has the advantage of introducing the unknown McKay, who could well clutching a variety of statuettes come the new year. It’s not for everyone, and Efron’s legions of fans will likely be left cold, but anyone with even a passing interest in theatre, or indeed the era, will find something to cherish in it.

3 out of 5

Last Broadcast, Simon Cole, 9 October 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

The Mercury Theatre in 1937 was a hot-bed of undiscovered talent: none more so than its prodigious talisman actor/director Orson Welles (at the time a mere 22), who was at the heart of every decision made, from the flyers down to the musical direction.

Welles ruled the troupe with an iron fist yet older, more experienced actors (Joseph Cotton and George Coulouris, both of whom would go on to co-star in Citizen Kane) and an irascible British producer John Houseman (who recognised the raw talent of his wunderkind charge) ensured the ensemble was not overwhelmed by Welles himself.

Richard Linklater, the director of this fascinating film, has similarly peppered his cast with a variety of new faces, but manages to lure the bankability of Zac Efron in what could sensibly be called his first dramatic role as Richard Samuels, a young actor who finds himself cast in a production of ‘Julius Caesar’, which Welles is producing at the Mercury in New York.

Linklater’s film is based on a well-researched piece of historical fiction by Robert Kaplow and, though the source material is quite sleight, the film triumphs mainly due to the excellent set-pieces within the theatre, culminating with the successful opening night. It’s here where the film truly hits its stride. The love triangle between Richard, Welles and production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) never quite reaches an effective counterpoint to the spittle that flies between Welles and his assembled ensemble. Within this collective are some unshowy performances from Eddie Marsan as Houseman and Ben Chaplin as Coulouris.

The film, however, belongs to Christian McKay, who as Welles is at once entertaining and charming as he improvises his way through a radio play to make money for the unpaid cast to have a night out. His brutish and petulant grip on his actors and crew is tightened with the threat that they always must agree with his decisions or lose their jobs. It’s a wonderful star-making performance and, though the producers fought for a bigger “name”, Linklater is admirable for sticking to his guns and allowing McKay to soar.

4 out of 5, Katherine Monk, 27 November 2009:

A loving portrait of a great director: Me and Orson Welles reconstructs historic moment in time.

Big egos make for big entertainment – whether we love or hate the person behind the haughtiness.

That said, Orson Welles was one of the biggest egos of the 20th century, which immediately puts Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles in a winning dramatic position.

Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, this film attempts to reconstruct a very specific and rather historic moment in time as Welles prepared his 1937 Mercury Theatre version of Julius Caesar – a production considered so successful and revolutionary, it cemented Welles’s reputation as the Great White Way’s wizard.

Kaplow’s novel researched the entire backstory behind Caesar‘s stage evolution, as well as the assorted players surrounding Welles at the time, but to keep things dramatically buoyant, Kaplow created the character of Richard Samuels, an ordinary kid with dreams of becoming a bona fide performer.

Samuels is all fiction, but in the body of Zac Efron, there are several reasons to embrace the historic interloper, including the mere fact it’s Zac Efron, one of the most likable screen stars to grace the sound stage since Matthew Broderick took his famous day off as Ferris Bueller.

Efron manages to come off as sweet and kind without being cloying, and that’s a surprisingly difficult balance to strike for a young actor stacked with Disney credits.

It also happens to be the perfect character foil for the character of Orson Welles, a larger-than-life talent who consumed the life energy of those around him for his own gain, but still managed to share a fraction of the limelight – and the profits.

Welles was a man possessed by his dramatic vision, and in this rather loving – but far from fawning -portrait of the late, great dramatist and film director, we’re given a front seat to his creative process.

Using records from the era, the movie pulls us into rehearsals, just as our fictional, wide-eyed teenager Richard (Efron) fast-talks his way into a job playing Lucius, a bit player with an important ballad, and a handful of lines in the political tragedy.

Winning over the tempestuous Welles with his quick smile and musical skills, Richard soon becomes the company’s de facto mascot.

He befriends Welles’ posse, including Joseph Cotten (Dartmouth N.S. son James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), but it’s his connection to the office “ice queen” Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) that finally establishes him as a threat.

Richard develops a crush on the office accountant and manages to seduce the object of every actor’s desire, but when he learns Sonja is Welles’ turf, he refuses to back down.

The tussle over the gal leads to a showdown between the young gun and the slightly older dramatic sage, but even though this narrative line is given centre stage, it’s not really the main attraction.

Given the importance of this time in American theatre arts, it’s the creation and evolution of Caesar, and gaining insight into Welles’ dramatic tool box, that really makes this movie notable.

Moreover, watching English actor Christian McKay fully inhabit the large frame of the iconic Welles is a bit like entering a time machine. McKay nails the voice and brio of the legend, which could have felt too much like a standup stunt without a tight rein from Linklater.

The script could have offered a little more profundity and a little less self-conscious chatter, given these were some of the most intelligent theatre people of the era.

Then again, maybe that’s just what we all thought.

Maybe they were just a bunch of shallow, vain and self-obsessed people who stumbled into greatness through an act of panicked surrender.

This movie makes no conclusions either way – which is good. What would have made it better is a better argument from both sides.

CAPSULE REVIEW – Me and Orson Welles: Zac Efron stars opposite Claire Danes and English character actor Christian McKay in this historically creative piece that takes us into the rehearsals for the Mercury players’ 1937 version of Julius Caesar. With McKay nailing the part of Welles, the movie has enough dramatic traction to keep us entertained when the contrived romantic bits get boring. Rating: Three and a half stars out of five. – Katherine Monk

News Of The World, Robbie Collin, 28 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles (PG)

Verdict: Welles done everyone ****

LOVELY Zac Efron. Look at him up there. Awww.

See the way he gazes into the distance, hair just so, jaw set firm, crystal-blue eyes dancing with the joy of life.

Makes you want to slap the handsome off his smug little face, dunnit?

Zac made his name, of course, in the High School Musical series, playing an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk on the basketball team.

And he was great at it. But two big questions remained. What on earth would he do next – and, more importantly, would he stink at it?

Then Zac made 17 Again, a film that stretched him all the way… to playing an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk on the basketball team. So the big questions are still a-lingerin’. But consider them now answered, people. Because Me And Orson Welles is Zaccharine’s coming-of-age party.

And who’s he playing? An all-singing, all- dancing high-school hunk… OK, OK, but this time it’s different. Honest.

In a year of CGI, 3D and crash-zooms, Me And Orson Welles is a bizarre little one-off about a young wannabe actor in 1930s New York City.

It’s shamelessly old-fashioned, hugely unfashionable and absolutely brilliant.

And it’s hard to know who’ll be most confused by it. The Bebo-brained Efron mob or fans of director Richard Linklater – who’s famous for his experimental stuff that, by and large, DOESN’T involve sticking a Disney heartthrob into a chirpy drama set on Broadway. Zac plays 17-year-old Richard Samuels who (I swear he actually says this) has been in “mostly shows at school”.

Seeking his fortune in the Big Apple, Rich meets legendary director Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and lands a small part in his production of Julius Caesar, where he falls for one of the cast members – the dazzling Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).

Linklater plays it as a coming-of-age tale but also as a love-letter to the theatre, and it works brilliantly on both counts.

But while Zac’s the biggest name on the cast, it’s Christian as Orson who makes the biggest impression.

I’ve never even heard of the guy before. Where’s he been hiding? A cloning facility underneath Xanadu, would be a fair guess, because – truly – you might as well be watching the big man himself.

The guy’s a humungous, fire-spitting, window-rattling pillock. He’s also a bully but he’s never a baddie – a genius balancing act that Christian pulls off perfectly.

Fact is, I’d back this Orse (Ithangyew) for a place on the best-supporting-actor- Oscar shortlist.


And in the face of such a top-quality performance, poor Zac just can’t compete.

The little lamb DOES hold his own though, and a glowing cast – including top turns from Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly and Ben Chaplin – means there’s not a weak link in the chain.

Also, full marks to everyone involved in rigging up the striking 30s New York setting. That’s hard enough when you’re filming in present-day NYC.

But the fact Linklater managed it while shooting on the Isle of Man and a couple of sound stages at Pinewood elevates it to ruddy witchcraft.

In a way, Me And Orson Welles is the perfect Christmas film – it’s light, it’s fun, it leaves you with a spring in your step, and Vince Vaughn is nowhere to be seen.

So catch this before the multiplexes get swamped with this year’s serious big hitters – ie Sherlock and Avatar – and you’ll see one of the most unexpected delights of 2009.

Congrats on this one, Zac. I’d happily watch you play an all-singing, all-dancing high-school hunk any time.

Which is just as well, cos at this rate, you’ll be doing it till you’re 50.

Mirror, Mark Adams, 29 November 2009:


Efron shines in ’30s drama

Me And Orson Welles 12A, 113mins


Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Christian McKay, Zoe Kazan.


Student Richard Samuels (Efron) manages to get a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar on Broadway, directed by and starring a youthful Orson Welles (McKay). Over the week of rehearsals he is surrounded by passions, politics and posturing – and has to grow up extremely fast.


Teen heartthrob Zac Efron makes a smooth and engaging transition from fluffy high school flicks to comedy drama.

And in the safe hands of director Richard Linklater he confirms his star quality in this breezy and engaging film centred on the larger-then-life talent of Orson Welles. Cute ‘n’ charming Efron has made his name in teen-friendly flicks such as the High School Musical films and recent hit 17 Again. But here he is up alongside acting heavyweights Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan, and he more than holds his own.

The film itself is an intriguing and entertaining period romp that may well bemuse teen girls out for a little more of the Zac Efron action they have been used to.

He does, though, get to sing… but only a little bit, and it is part of the on-screen production of Julius Caesar. So not really the fluffy pop stuff fans of the High School Musical films are used to. But those coming to the film because they fancy a well-made drama or are fans of Welles should prepare to be impressed.

The witty and nimble script does a great job of recreating the era of 1930s Broadway, and Brit newcomer Christian McKay is a revelation as big Orson.

He nails the whimsical charm of this pioneering performer. Charming, offensive, annoying, inspiring and always brilliant, Welles was the real thing – and this film is a great tribute to his skills. The story weaves the production of Julius Caesar with Richard’s coming of age as a man as he falls in love with the elegant but ambitious production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes, very impressive).

The showdown comes as he has to battle Welles for her affections (no chance there then… Welles always wins) while also having to come to terms with his impending debut on the Broadway stage.

Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) directs with grace and style, paying attention to the nostalgia but also allowing his actors to shine and revel in their larger-than-life roles.


Me and Orson Welles is a thoroughly charming film, with Zac Efron in terrific form.

California Chronicle, John Millar, 29 November 2009:

Welles Done Chris ; Movie Previews

Hot on the heels of the big-screen re-release of Orson Welles’ movie masterpiece Citizen Kane comes this glimpse into an incident in the early days of the man who was to become a movie icon.

It’s 1937 and Welles has gathered regulars from the Mercury Theatre Company together to stage a controversial version of Shakespeare’s Julius DANCE… Zac Efron and Claire Danes Caesar. But the Welles method of putting this Broadway production togetheris a dictatorship – it’s his way or the highway.

His personal life is just as uncompromisingly self-absorbed. Even though his wife is very pregnant, the great man is having an affair with his leading lady.

Into the wacky world of Welles comes Richard, an impressionable 17-year-old who dreams of theatrical glory.

After an accidental encounter with Welles, the youngster creates such a favourable impression that he is invited to join the company.

It doesn’t take long in this coming-of-age story for Richard to fall in love with Sonja, the production assistant. However, Richard may have some rivals for the affections of the attractive young Girl Friday.

High School Musical star Zac Efron is ideally cast as the plot’s naive young hero and Claire Danes takes on the role of the all- knowing Sonja. There are also some neat little cameos from the likes of Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, Eddie Marsan as JohnHouseman and James Tupper as Joseph Cotton.

In addition, there is a blink-andyou-might-miss-it appearance from Scots songstress Eddi Reader as a cabaret artiste.

Me And Orson Welles has a beautifully-judged sense of the period. But the strength of this modestly budgeted movie lies in the discovery of newcomer Christian McKay as the legendary actor/ director. Not only does is he the spitting image of the young,boisterous, confidence-oozing Welles, he also sounds just like him.

Throughout his time on screen, McKay is never wrong-footed. The role fits him so perfectly that there are times when you have to remind yourself that it isn’t Welles up there on the screen.

The film is destined to be remembered as the one that gave McKay the role of a lifetime but whether there is enough going on to create a box office buzz is another matter.

It is a little slow-moving and the story is rather slight but once it gets going you will be glad you stuck with it.

And you will marvel at the performance from McKay.

Monsters & Critics, Ron Wilkinson, 30 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles: Movie Review

A small but revealing inside look at Orson Welles at the crisis of his life and the inside story of glamorous 1930’s Broadway

Richard Linklater become one of the undisputed heroes of the indie circuit with his award winning youth based films shot on ultra low budgets (“Slacker,” “Fast Food Nation,” Oscar nominated “Before Sunset”). In this film he has stayed with the tried and true formula of viewing the world through young eyes but has strayed far away from the conventional indie formula with a 1930’s setting rich with costumery and set design. The end result is a fun film that harkens back to the Neil Simon coming-of-age trips down memory lane.

The film is based on the novel by Robert Kaplow about how young Richard Samuels won the chance of a lifetime to be in the hottest place at the hottest time and learned what Broadway was all about.

Emerging actor Zac Efron (“Hairspray”) plays 17 year old Samuels in the roaring era of 1937 New York City. The Nazis are far away, WWII is just a speculation and the Broadway theatre scene is dancing on the grave of prohibition. Richard is forced to study Shakespeare in school but what he wants to do is live Shakespeare on the stage. Hanging out on 41st Street he runs head-on into one the brightest of the new stars in the Theatre District, Orson Welles. Welles’ revolutionary modernization of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is opening in one week at his new Mercury Theatre and the stakes are high for Welles. Young Richard lucks his way into a minor role with the bluff and bluster that will come to signify the Great White Way.

Newcomer Christian McKay has the lead role of Orson Welles in the film, a character that is as much defined by the villainy of the iconic radio and film genius as by his achievements. Mckay does a great job, he belts out his lines like a Shakespearean actor and comes as close to Welles as Welles was willing to come to himself. McKay bagged a nomination for Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards for his leading role in this film and the nod is well deserved.

The love interest in the film has nothing to do with Welles, indeed he is depicted as a man so obsessed with his work so as to be incapable of love. The romance is between the striking beautiful Claire Danes (“The Hours” and “My So-Called Life” on TV) who plays office assistant Sonja Jones. It is a credit to Linklater that Efron and Danes develop a marvelous screen chemistry that becomes as beautiful as it is nostalgic. By the way, there is considerable nostalgia in this film—if you don’t have a touch of yearning for the good old days, you might just as well give the movie a miss.

Amongst the great supporting actors it is hard to know where to start; they all do their jobs so well. The stand-out is Eddie Marsan, winner of two British Independent Film Awards for Best Supporting actor for his work as the devilishly freaked out driving instructor in “Happy-Go-Lucky” and for the angry and confused Reg in the political pot-boiler “Vera Drake.” He plays producer John Houseman with style and aptly reproduces the love-hate relationship that exists between most directors and producers and probably existed between Houseman and Welles as well. It is Marsan’s panicky businessman pleas to Welles that creates much of the tension in the film. Both men had their fortunes and their careers at stake in a risky production.

Zoe Kazan and James Tupper provide stand-out supporting work as well, with Kazan playing the girl next door who eventually shows the true heart of the city.

Production designer Laurence Dorman, costume designer Nic Ede and hair and make-up designer Fae Hammond also deserve a substantial share of the credit for pulling this light-weight drama off successfully. They are the people who take the film viewers out of the London shooting locations and place them squarely on the feverish streets and inside the peeling walls of the inwardly squalid and outwardly glamorous stage scene. The interior building shots in the museums, apartments and the dirty and faded back-stage areas of new York are shown is fascinating realism., 30 November 2009:

Film review: Me and Orson Welles


LIKE Citizen Kane, Orson Welles still casts a larger-than-life shadow as an actor, filmmaker, and purveyor of Carlsberg beer and Birds-Eye peas, even though he passed away almost quarter of a century ago. Maybe that’s why biopics have tended to place Welles at the margins of another person’s story – commiserating over directing hardships in Ed Wood, stropping about in The Cradle Will Rock – lest he gobble up the screen. Perhaps Tim Burton arrived at the best compromise for Ed Wood; Vincent D’Onofrio was chosen for his resemblance to Welles while Maurice LaMarche pitched his version of that regretful bassoon of a voice.

When you need two actors to play one behemoth, you can guess who is going to dominate in a film called Me And Orson Welles – even though “me” is played by Zac Efron, who is the equivalent of tween movie heroin right now. You also have to give props to Efron for pitching his star power into a low budget movie with no song-and-dance high school numbers and the Isle of Man standing in for a Depression era New York.

Nor is he at all bad as 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a student who stumbles into landing a bit part in a 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, directed by Welles (played by British stage actor Christian McKay, who previously portrayed the big man at the Edinburgh Festival). Welles’ wised-up ambitious production assistant (Claire Danes) tries to warn the young actor that he may be working for Welles but he shouldn’t expect anything so vulgar as money to change hands. “You’re not getting paid,” she says. “You’re getting the opportunity of being sprayed by Orson Welles’ spit.”

This is Welles as an enfant at the very start of his career, yet already terrible. Only four years older than Samuels, he’s already a worldly married man with a child on the way and affairs on the side; a star on Broadway, he speeds to radio studios by ambulance to record episodes of The Shadow, and earns admiration when he apparently extemporises speeches live on air.

Welles both awes and dominates Samuels, just as McKay makes High School Musical‘s Troy Bolton look weightless against his tour de force performance. It’s not just that McKay has the sonorous voice, the babyfat looks, the girth and those restlessly amused eyebrows. His Welles goes beyond karaoke into a performance that captures both Welles’ charm, his bravery, his cowardice and his brutality.

If the rest of Richard Linklater’s film was as good as McKay showing Efron how to light a cigarette in a way that will impress girls, this would be a five-star experience, but when McKay is off-screen you can feel the temperature dip and the pace slacken off.

This is a film about three romances: Samuel’s platonic crush on Welles, which is understandable; his attempts to romance Danes’ capable career girl, which has all the heat of rubbing two wet matches together; and a passion for the stage. Linklater has most success persuading us that the Mercury company’s Julius Caesar really was an exciting milestone in Broadway theatre. The glimpses we’re given of rehearsals and the first night made me wish that someone could show us the whole thing., Natalie Peck, 1 December 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Set in 1937, Me and Orson Welles stars Zac Efron as hapless teenage fame-seeker Richard Samuels, who is cast in the Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar directed by Orson Welles. Richard negotiates the highs and lows of working with Welles and predictably falls for the beautiful Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) the ambitious theatre manager, who seems to welcome his tentative advances. As Richard becomes more embroiled with the production, and neglects his schooling for his big shot at acting, he comes to realise that his new lifestyle may not be all it seems.

“When you’re doing a film called Me and Orson Welles, you’d better find your Orson Welles” jokes director Richard Linklater. It may seem an obvious point to make but, Christian McKay, a newcomer to the big screen, channels the egotistical genius of Welles in a way that is crucial to the crux of the story. His vocal nuances are wonderfully accurate, and his physical resemblance to the young Welles helps a great deal to solidify the strength of his performance. You can understand Linklater when he says, “I felt the film gods were smiling on us when we found Christian.”

The only danger is that McKay tends to dominate when he is on-screen, with the danger that he outshines other actors in his scenes, as Welles would have done in real life. There is a real sense that McKay relishes in his role, able to hide behind such a fantastically dynamic alter ego, and in doing so, embodies a genuine and heartfelt portrayal.

However, equally important as the “Me” of the title, Efron holds his own in the film, dispelling any doubt that he can competently perform outside of his familiar all-singing, all-dancing territory. At times it can feel like the film is acting as a showcase for Efron, and goes too far in trying to prove a point. While not spectacular, he embodies the youthful cockiness of a young man picked out of a mundane life to work within the hubbub of a theatre troupe, and is endearingly vulnerable in the moments where Richard finds himself down on his luck.

The interaction between Richard and Sonja is well played, although Danes’ Sonja lacks any empathetic qualities, which dampens an otherwise astute performance. Her forthright attitude towards her ambitious plans to climb the career ladder gloss over the way she is treated by the powerful men in the film and, although she appears in control of her situation, she is a sorry character if not a sympathetic one.

The real strength of the film is its ability to replicate what it may have been like to work around Welles in the theatre, to bathe in the light of his praise or feel the sting of his casual dismissal, which is conveyed brilliantly throughout. While the dialogue is engaging and witty, it feels like Me and Orson Welles thinks it is cleverer than it really is. Although the film is charming with many tender moments between the characters, it doesn’t quite carry an emotional resonance to the extent that it should. The scenes that frame the film, Richard’s chance encounters with aspiring writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) showcase some delicately powerful acting, but are too clumsily placed in the narrative and so come off as insincere.

As Welles himself once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story” and, indeed, we are never quite sure what Richard really learns from his experience with Welles, if anything at all, although the resolution of the film is optimistic it feels a little empty.

Screengeek, Becky Reed, 1 December 2009:

Review: Me and Orson Welles

One thing to say about Richard Linklater – everything he does has the air of pleasant about it. A knack for creating a comfort zone, his adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel is a quaint affair, with 1930s Manhattan wonderfully and painstakingly recreated on the Isle Of Man. The film is told from the point of view of a 17-year-old aspiring actor Richard (Zac Efron), who gets the luckiest break of his life when he nabs a role in Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar in the freshly opened Mercury Theatre. An account of one turbulent week leading up the opening night, Richard not only faces stage fright and massive egos, but the drama of falling in love with Welles’ glamorous theatre assistant Sonja.

It’s a good job an actor whom the camera adores was cast as Richard, as the character is woefully underwritten. At no point do you feel you know what drives him, or what makes him tick – Richard is a bland, empty vessel and it is only Efron’s bone structure that stops him fading into the wallpaper. Also disappointing is the lack of chemistry between Efron and Claire Danes‘ brittle, self-obsessed Sonja – unhelpful when the supposed passion Richard feels for her drives a pivotal scene in the film. Again, more of a problem with the screenwriter than the actors. Richard gets to regularly clear his head from the madness of the production by bumping into the gauche writer Gretta (a twee Zoe Kazan), but these scenes still go no further to enhance Richard, serving only Gretta.

So it is left to the magnificent Christian McKay to carry the film as the young Orson Welles, and the British stage actor wrings every bit of magic from his screen debut. McKay not only harnesses the mannerisms of the audacious auteur, but that confidence that veers very frequently into arrogance. However, McKay is very careful not to merely be a bombastic caricature, demonstrating the knowing that anyone desperate to succeed in the arts must have, and sharing that with Efron in a fascinating one-on-one scene towards the end. A supporting cast, of, well, the supporting cast of Julius Caesar, add some much-needed charm, especially Ben Chaplin’s adorably intense George Coulouris. Very little happens in this seven-day period, but all the highlights come from the behind-the-scenes chaos of working under a director like Welles, giving the cast a great opportunity to have fun with the in-jokes and send-ups.

An unremarkable flick, but a delight for anyone interested in Welles, or who fancies seeing a strong contender for one of the performances of the year from McKay. Efron’s star quality burned brighter in Hairspray and 17 Again, and it’s a shame he is not allowed to shine in a dull role.

Rating: 3/5

Time Out London, Dave Calhoun, 1 December 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

We first meet Zac Efron’s Richard, the ‘me’ of Richard Linklater’s charming new film about the insecurities and comradeship of actors, as a distracted, 17-year-old New York student, reading Noël Coward in class instead of Shakespeare. It’s 1937 and Richard is a mildly cocky, slightly vain youngster who compares himself to a photo of John Gielgud on a book cover and tells a girl he meets in a jazz store that ‘I’m sort of an actor’. Minutes later, he stumbles on some real actors gathered to rehearse Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre production of ‘Julius Caesar’ and lays down some chat about playing the ukulele. Next thing, he’s got a bit part. Weekly pay: zilch. ‘Kid’s got balls,’ mutters Welles (Christian McKay), a cigar between his teeth. Let rehearsals begin…

Robert Kaplow’s source novel and Linklater’s sprightly adaptation sprinkle a little fiction on Welles’s very real, radical staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ and offer a sideways view of one of the most precocious, flawed talents of the twentieth century. In 1937, Welles was just 22, pre-‘War of the Worlds’, pre-‘Citizen Kane’, but already a darling of the New York theatre scene and able to wrest art from chaos on a wing and a prayer. Efron’s Richard – played with an attractive, puckish energy and loosely based on a real character – is a window on Welles’s world at just enough of a distance from the great man that the director’s loud personality doesn’t dominate. All roads lead to Welles, but we also witness a brief affair between Richard and Mercury staffer Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), during which Richard learns that the public and the private are one and the same in this theatrical hothouse. Even the loss of his virginity infringes on Welles’s mantra: ‘There is one simple rule: I own the store!’

McKay’s turn as Welles is hugely enjoyable, the right mix of extreme confidence and a dash of vulnerability. Physically and vocally, he’s very convincing: his Welles is a bullish presence among his actors but he also displays cracks in the great man’s armour: he whispers a sincere ‘thank you’ to his producer (Eddie Marsan) and tells Richard how he’s adapting ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ for radio: ‘“Ambersons” is about how everything gets taken away from you,’ he says, a reminder that Welles lost both parents by the time he was 15.

What’s most admirable about Linklater’s production is that it never loses sight of the play at its heart. The crescendo is not a romance or any other distraction, but the outcome of rehearsals during which we and the cast believe a disaster is pending. There’s a strong ensemble flavour, characterised by the simultaneously selfish and clubbable tendencies of the actors, which makes for a lightly comic experience but also for a portrait of a theatre company that feels warm and true.

4 out of 5

OK!, 1 December 2009:

Me & Orson Welles

What’s it all about?

A young actor gets the chance of a lifetime when he lands a role in a stage production with famed actor Orson Welles. But Richard (Efron) isn’t prepared for all the backstage dramas.

What’s good?

Zac Efron shows that he has range beyond teen movies in this sophisticated theatrical drama.

Claire Danes is also delightful as his love interest Sonja, while Christian McKay steals the show doing a great impression of real-life legend Orson Welles.

It’s interesting to see the hold Welles has over his fellow performers – especially the women, who fall at his feet, much to Richard’s annoyance.

What’s bad?

There are fun moments, but it’s easy to get a bit bored – this is slow-paced and oddly lacking in direction.

OK! verdict:

Great performances keep this slow-moving drama afloat. Zac Efron looks as lovely as ever and proves himself in a more grown-up role.

Christianity Today, Brett McCracken, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Anyone who ever made it in the entertainment business got there because of some “big break.” But do these breaks happen because of luck? Or talent? Or both? In Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), we witness the early days of one of Hollywood’s most successful icons and can decide for ourselves whether luck or talent plays a bigger role in his success.

This movie tells Welles’ story through the eyes of a wide-eyed high school student named Richard (Zac Efron) who, in 1937 New York, stumbles into a small role in a production of Julius Caesar that Welles (Christian McKay) is staging in his newly formed Mercury Theater on Broadway. The film is a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the wild world of theater in general, and particularly the even wilder world of Welles—a womanizing, narcissistic, magnetic force of American nature destined for greatness. Richard is in over his head, for sure, and next to Welles he’s about as embarrassingly minute as Miley Cyrus would be if she starred in a film opposite Judi Dench.

Perhaps that’s why, when Richard goes head-to-head against Welles over a woman (Claire Danes) later in the film, it’s hard to root for Richard’s success. He’s outmatched in every way by Welles, and even if he is more virtuous and less tainted by ruthless ambition, he’s painstakingly boring by comparison. But maybe he’s just young. How interesting can a high school teen be, anyway?

None of this is Efron’s fault. The former Disney Channel/High School Musican star is perfectly fresh-faced and innocuous in the part, and he capably embodies the sort of “aw shucks, mister!” vibe of a raised-in-the-Depression New York youth. But Efron can’t help the fact the film’s real star—the British actor Christian McKay as Welles—is infinitely more compelling to watch. McKay, who looks impressively similar to man himself, perfectly captures Welles’ thunderous bravado and penchant for the melodramatic. Though at times it might tilt a little too far in the direction of caricature, McKay’s portrayal is for the most part dead-on.

As for the rest of the cast, Danes is a standout as an eager-beaver member of the Mercury company who will do anything (and sleep with anyone) in order to get ahead. On the soul-deadening ambition scale, she’s somewhere between the innocence of Richard and the ruthlessness of Welles. So perhaps it makes sense that she’s romantically linked with both.

The story plays out against the “clearly a set” backdrop of 30s-era Manhattan, though the majority of the film was shot inside the Gaiety Theatre on the British Isle of Man (and indeed, most of the cast is British too—largely the Royal Shakespeare Company). The visuals are magnificent, to be sure, but at times the film feels a tad claustrophobic and stagey. It’s all so blocked and clean and colorful, when the messy, black-and-white New York of that era might seem a more logical fit (and cheaper too). But Linklater’s stylistic choices are doubtless all very intentional.

Linklater’s films are often heavy on dialogue and slight on action (though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Slacker, and Tape are made up entirely of conversations: Just people talking and walking and waxing philosophical. These films put the spotlight on the question of what cinema is and how it differs from theater. If it’s just people talking, why not just write it as a play? What are the benefits of playing for the camera’s eye as opposed to the theater-going audience’s attention? Me and Orson Welles—a movie about theater, focused on an iconic film director—asks these questions with appropriately theatrical gusto.

Linklater and cinematographer Dick Pope (Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) playfully draw attention to the cinematic presence of the camera. Though we are watching “theater,” our point of view is not fixed as an audience’s might be. Rather, the camera is constantly moving, swooping hither and yon, getting up in the face of the actors. Liberal use of tracking shots, slow zooms, and other “this is what a camera can do!” tricks (including some mise en scene depth-of-field setups Welles would have liked) make a point to underscore the filmic reality of this otherwise theater-centric story.

This is also a film about storytelling and how it lives and breathes in different media forms. Welles is a movie (Linklater) based on a book (Robert Kaplow) about a film director (Welles) who once adapted a Shakespearean play (Julius Caesar) based on a real event. It’s a film about the amorphous versatility of storytelling. It’s not a coincidence that the film is set in the 1930s—a time when the cinema, theater, radio, and newspapers were enjoying their heyday. Back then, people had the patience for things like Shakespeare, the imagination for things like radio melodramas, and the motivation to slow down and read fiction once and a while.

But even in this age of iPods, Twitter and High School Musical, there is still a market for a well-told story. And that seems to be the point Linklater is trying to make. Despite his faults, Orson Welles was a great, ambitious, groundbreaking storyteller. He didn’t care what people said or what obstacles got in the way of his vision. He pressed on and trusted his aesthetic instincts, though sadly he’s as much a relic of the mid-century as he was an anomaly within it (a distinctive voice working within the clone-friendly Hollywood studio system). Do they make them like Welles anymore? Probably not.

At the end of the day, Welles is a movie for people who love Orson Welles or love movies about theater. It has less to say about art, luck, and talent than you’d think it would (for a film so aesthetically self-aware), and it has fewer insights into Welles himself than it probably should. It’s no Citizen Kane, and it won’t change your life. But it’s a well-told story, and sometimes that’s enough.

CompuServe, Harvey Karten, 18 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

You might expect this low-budget recreation of Orson Welles’s New York stage production of Julius Caesar to be typical Sundance fare; amusing, but instantly forgettable. Lo and behold, however, “Me and Orson Welles,” under the direction of Richard Linklater (“Before Sunset,” “Dazed and Confused”), is a sensation blessed with remarkable acting, authentic-looking production values, and enough energy to turn a Cadillac gas-guzzler into a hybrid. To travel from Roland Emmerich’s bloated, $260 million “2012” to Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” is to go from the ridiculous to the sublime. While some would say that this movie is targeted to lovers of theater, it’s nice to have faith that a regular audience with broad, but sensitive tastes, would gobble the movie up. It doesn’t hurt that the poster-perfect Greek-godlike Zac Efron stars, a guy who should be able to rival “Twilight Series”’ Robert Pattinson as a teen heartthrob, and besides Mr. Efron (“High School Musical,” “Hairspray”) is a year younger—22 to Pattinson’s over-the-hill 23.

Yet the real acting honors go to Christian McKay, who does a spot-on impersonation of Orson Welles when that great actor-director was Efron’s age, though McKay looks quite a bit older, but who cares when the man’s theatrical delivery is enough to make one cut back on movies and devote some time—and lots of money—to Broadway theater.

Adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo re-create some fiction within the framework of Welles’s actual directing of Shakespeare’s “Caesar,” which Welles made contemporary by suiting the actors in the style of Fascist Rome during the twenties and thirties. If you want to know what rehearsals are like for professional stage productions, the madness, the ersatz heart attacks of scared performers, the bellowing of the director who in this case serves as a major actor, this is the film to see. Though photographed not in New York’s 41st Street where the original Mercury Theater stood (now an office building without even a plaque to mark the historic place), Linklater makes good use of the restored Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, population 23,000. Outdoor scenes are set in constructed sets at Pinewood Studios, which devised a replica of the world’s greatest city as it appeared 72 years ago. The British Museum stands in for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where a Grecian Urn and a young couple standing before it in admiration forms a classy near-conclusion.

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a bored, 17-year-old high-school student, gets the chance to rise well beyond his years on a chance encounter with Orson Welles on a street outside the Mercury theater. While Richard prepares for a small role as Lucius in the Shakespeare play—which every middle school student used to know before the advent of the iPhone—he attracts the affection of Sonja (Claire Danes), who serves as a theater assistant manager. Richard is cautioned about Welles’s prima donna status, advised never to criticize the man who is about to make theater history by presenting a souped-up, pared-down, ninety-minute, contemporary version of “Julius Caesar.”

During the hectic weeks of preparation where everything goes wrong, Welles surveys the kingdom like a pampered prince, enjoyed assignations with actresses and assistants who do not get paid but look upon this experience as a way to jump-start their careers. When Richard becomes romantically involved with Sonja, competing with the director whose starlets must be willing to head to Welles’s assignation apartment at any time, the big, expected showdown occurs, all witnessed by Mercury Theater co-founder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), in the key role of Marc Antony.

As strikingly handsome and assertive as Efron’s character, Richard Samuels comes across, the show belongs to Christian MacKay in a stellar performance that could well be the talk of the guilds during this awards season.

Grade: A-

It’s Just Movies, Jason Eaken, 24 November 2009:

Under Review: Me and Orson Welles

Zac Efron and Orson Welles: if ever there was a more unlikely combination, for the life of me I cannot conjure it. Yet here they are in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” a film whose sentimentally simplistic title indicates its own merits and demerits. And there are plenty of both.

Efron plays Richard Samuels, a kid who skips school, takes the train into New York City with big dreams of acting stardom. Standing outside the Mercury Theatre in 1937, he gumptions himself into the role of Lucius in “Julius Caesar,” a play written by Shakespeare and directed by Orson Welles (just try to imagine a creative dispute between those two).

Welles takes a shine to Richard, and Richard takes a different kind of shine to the play’s Production Assistant, Sonja Jones, played by Claire Danes.

The movie proceeds in many ways that we expect, the Mercury Theatre as the setting for much of the action. There are disputes in rehearsal, there is a supporting cast of actors playing actors, each with a small crisis specific to their role in the play, and we see the growing attraction between Richard and Sonja. These points may be standard, but they are never boring.

Very much like Linklater’s “School of Rock,” this is a movie that is nearly impossible to dislike. The plot may be a little simple, but the subject matter is consistently engaging.

None moreso than Christian McKay as Orson Welles. I will be surprised and disappointed if this film does not earn him an Oscar nomination. He looks like Welles; he moves like him; most importantly, he sounds like him – in voice and inflection and cadence. This is not impersonation, it is embodiment.

Though the film is seen through Richard’s eyes, Welles propels the story along, and the film regards him mostly objectively.

Yes, he can be a monster. But he is a genius. More than that, he is a charming genius, and McKay’s performance moves past all our defenses, so that when Welles is taking Richard under his wing, when they are dashing into cars to go to a radio play, we feel like we’ve been granted assembly with a god.

As a serious actor, Zac Efron has a long way to go. My cynical assumption is that his attachment to the film allowed it a larger budget and (the producers surely are praying) a wider audience. And it is a wide-audience film, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But does Efron has the dramatic range? No. He is stiff. He still operates on a dial set a little too much for Disney movies. Earlier this year, he showed he had adequate comic timing in the otherwise forgettable “17 Again,” and I will give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he wanted the part to challenge himself as an actor.

Indeed, the scenes between Efron and McKay are the best in the film, particularly a scene late in the story set on a park bench. Perhaps Efron is elevated by the brilliance of his scene partner, and while he is clearly upstaged by McKay’s Welles (how could he not be?), they do prove Efron has the potential to be very good. The love story between his Richard and Claire Danes’ Sonja is interesting and appropriately messy, and Danes proves once again that she is a strong actress with an eye for interesting projects.

The screenplay by first-time writer Holly Gent Palmo is too formulaic to be outright brilliant, and the same goes for Linklater’s direction. It seems non-existent. Where was the inventiveness he brought to his weird creations like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”? Where were the long, luxurious shots he was so fond of in “Before Sunrise”? He has never been a favorite of mine, partly because he seems less devoted to his more accessible films. With some script-tweaking and a strong stylistic choice, this could have been a dynamic piece of filmmaking. Christian McKay certainly pulled out all the stops.

What the movie is, though, is good and enjoyable. It presents a few hard-earned lessons, a brilliant performance, and it lets us imagine the rehearsals for a groundbreaking theatrical production. Well so I guess that’s no small feat itself, now is it?

The Skinny, Alastair Roy, 23 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles begins with actor Richard (Zac Effron) seeking out the great Orson Welles for work. Seeing in his Haribo-boy face the perfect foil to reflect his own greatness, Welles throws Richard a small part in his upcoming production of Julius Ceasar. When Richard gets sweet on PR girl Sonya (Claire Danes) however, the jealous Orson threatens to close the curtain on their budding romance and the boy’s acting career. The frenetic pace of the 1930’s New York broadway scene cries out for the crackle of an early Woody Allen script, though this film raises fewer chuckles than may be expected and often fails to capture the magic of the period. Efron is believable as the fish-out-of-water goof with heart and Claire Danes shines as the seductive self-starter Sonya, though it’s Christian MacKay’s tour de force portrayal of Welles that steals the show. In capturing the many sides of this complex character, MacKay carries what is otherwise a lacklustre offering from Linklater. (3/5)

Front Row Reviews, 23 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles Review

High School musical iconic teen heartthrob Zac Efron attempts to takes a step outside the teen genre with this period piece from Slacker director Richard Linklater. He plays wannabee young actor Richard Samuels, who manages to charm his way into a part in what was to become Orson Welles legendary reproduction of Caesar that rescued the New York Mercury theatre in 1937. The film introduces cinema audiences to Christian Mckay, an actor discovered by Linklater from the theatre stage, who plays a thoroughly convincing Orson whilst Claire Danes is Mercury theatre secretary Sonja, who Richard is hopelessly in love with.

Me and Orson Welles, although featuring an American setting and cast, is a British production and this can be clearly seen in the attention to detail of the mise en scene. The period costumes and sets set the time period convincingly along with the light hearted historic soundtrack. The films main flaw is that there is a slightly too much screen time devoted to long drawn out scenes from Caesar which are occasionally irrelevant to the plot, rather than just using ones that involve the films main characters in some way. This suggests that Linklater may have filmed the whole play within the film as well as the plot scenes and perhaps couldn’t bear to not include many of these scenes.

Christian Mackay clearly outshines everyone else in the film, in a role he was born to play with his physical similarities to Welles, and copes well with a script that is occasionally bland and wooden. Efron tries to show he has grown up from his teen musical days but ultimately fails – his frequent gesture of pushing his hair behind his ears has still made the final cut and his character is still a schoolboy, despite him actually now being 22. Danes performance is nothing special, and other smaller cast members in the play perform much more convincingly and are a humerous treat to watch out for.

This is a perfectly watchable and enjoybale film and I’m sure Efron fans will be enthralled by his every move, but its not a stand out film and ultimately a disappointment from such a great director, as it lacks any real substance and is a bit of a dull bland watch.

the moviegoer, Paul Matwychuk, 23 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles: Mercury Probe

I have never been on one of Richard Linklater’s sets, but it’s hard to imagine him doing what Orson Welles does in his new film Me and Orson Welles and yelling at the assembled cast and crew, “You are all adjuncts to my vision!” My impression of Linklater — formed by watching his best films, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunset — is of a director who’s the opposite of a control freak, someone more than happy to hand over large portions of his film to actors, musicians, even animators and trust them to make some huge creative decisions. The Welles we meet in Me and Orson Welles, meanwhile, is the world’s biggest credit hog, a man who isn’t happy being the director, producer, and star of his stage version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; he has to have people think he designed the set as well. (He’d probably claim credit for the script if he thought he could get away with it.)

A backstage comedy? Set in 1937 New York? And starring Zac Efron? Me and Orson Welles is an exceedingly square project for a laid-back Texas hipster like Richard Linklater, but on its own terms, it’s a fun, albeit minor little picture that delves into a great, unexplored period in Welles’ life, when he was racing all over New York, putting on plays, acting in radio shows, and seducing every pretty girl who crossed his path, even with a pregnant wife back home. (This period supplied some of the best anecdotes in This Is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich’s lively collection of Welles interviews. I’m sure all the stories are heavily embroidered, but it’s still a blast to hear Welles talk about how arriving at the radio studio for a live broadcast and being told moments before going on air what character he was playing.)

Christian McKay, an actor previously unknown to me, looks more like the comedian Joe Lo Truglio than Orson Welles, but he does a top-notch Welles imitation — the amused purse-lipped smile, the casually silver-tongued oratory, the ability to make every speech, every gesture, into a performance everyone in the room will want to pay attention to. There’s an amusing joke early on in the film where Welles spots a book with John Gielgud’s photo on the cover and wonders aloud if there’s a man alive more in love with the sound of his own voice.

That book is the property of Richard Samuels (Efron), a stagestruck teenager who hustles his way into Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe just when they’re putting together their legendary 1937 modern-dress version of Caesar. Of course, when Richard joins them, the only thing legendary about the show is its level of disorganization — opening night keeps getting delayed, the company is running out of cash, and the cast is feeling a little crushed under the weight of Welles’ ego. But Welles is so confident and charismatic, so skilled at convincing everyone of the brilliance of his vision, that no one dares leave — least of all Richard, who gets two scenes as Brutus’ servant Lucius. In one, he even gets to sing, accompanying himself on the lute. (Actually, Welles can’t afford a lute, so they’re using a disguised ukulele.) In the process, Richard falls for Welles’ assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) and learns a thing or two about love, art, and Shakespeare in the process.

I am a total sucker for backstage comedies, especially the ones where opening night looks like it’s going to be a total disaster but miraculously turns into a triumph instead, and sure enough, I fell for Me and Orson Welles as well. Efron’s fine in the male ingénue role, Danes looks very fetching in her ’30s blouses, and Eddie Marsan makes a strong impression as John Houseman — you believe Welles must be a genius, because there’s no way Houseman would have put up with working for him otherwise.

And even if it’s not the most daring film Linklater has ever made, it feels like it must have been a fun way to keep his creative batteries charged. Near the end of the film, Linklater shows Welles, flush with triumph, worriedly asking himself, “How do I top this?” Linklater is hopefully asking himself the same question.

Spirituality & Practice, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Seventeen-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) lives at home with his mother. Although still in high school, he’s developed a great love for the arts and sneaks off to wander around the Broadway theater district. Thanks to a rare combination of luck, charm, and chutzpah, he lands a small role in a 1937 modern-dress production of Julius Caesar at the new Mercury Theater. It is being directed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the “boy wonder” who at 22 is already well-known for his artistic genius. He is playing the part of Brutus but spends most of his time criticizing or meticulously assessing other actors, including Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). The theatre’s harassed manager, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), has his hands full putting out all the fires started by Welles, who rides roughshod over people’s feelings and will not take any criticism.

Richard is dazzled by this creative fireball and thrilled when he is told by Welles that he has a “God-created” talent for acting. The director even takes him along on a ride to a radio performance in his ambulance vehicle designed to get him everywhere fast. That, of course, is a running gag with the actors who spend hours waiting for Welles to show up; he is invariably late. Richard is also pleased by the flirtatious attention of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’s theater assistant who has the reputation for being an “ice queen.” As he finds out in getting to know her better, she has a talent for looking out for herself in a world where all that matters is who you know.

Me and Orson Welles is directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Fast Food Nation, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life) who is always an consummate entertainer no matter what the genre of film or its subject matter. The keys to the success of this funny and appealing coming-of-age drama are the casting of Christian McKay to play Orson Welles and the High School Musical star Zac Efron to play Richard Samuels. They give the film its energy, wit, verve, and panache. In a magical moment together on route to a radio performance. the director lets down his guard for a few minutes and shares with Richard his admiration for a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons.

Richard’s ethics are put to the test in more than one confrontation with his demanding boss. But the play is the thing for him, and he learns his lessons well. Christian McKay pulls out all the stops in his razzle-dazzle depiction of Welles, who is a divine gift to the world as an artist but hell on earth to be around as a self -absorbed, cocky, and treacherous human being.

The University, Paul Fennessy, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Pull Quotes: “While the entire cast excel in this vivid recreation of 1930s New York, Christian McKay’s impersonation of Orson Welles is the clear standout performance”

Biopics have long been a reliable source of cinematic tedium. All too often, they fall apart by eschewing the more controversial aspects of the protagonist’s persona and thus, neglecting to show anything of real interest in their life (see Coco Avant Chanel, La Vie en Rose). This failing can perhaps be attributed to the undue influence which the biographical subjects’ surviving relatives hold over the film.

Therefore, it is often the case that the biographies which work most effectively are those that adopt a highly unconventional approach, whereby a meticulously accurate representation of the subject is not the film’s foremost concern – this is true of I’m Not There, The Karen Carpenter Story and indeed, Citizen Kane.

Me and Orson Welles undertakes a similarly unusual approach. It focuses on the fictional tale of Richard Samuels, a young student (played by Zac Efron) who innocuously secures a role in Orson Welles’s legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar.

The ensuing story documents the boy’s difficulties in adapting to the rigorous demands which Welles requires him to meet, all the while having to contend with the director’s notoriously egotistical and eccentric personality.

Richard soon becomes smitten with Sonja, an assistant working in the theatre, who in turn hopes to be swept away by legendary producer David O. Selznick. At the same time, Richard and his fellow cast members struggle to get to grips with the play’s material as opening night looms.

While the entire cast excel in this vivid recreation of 1930s New York, Christian McKay’s impersonation of Orson Welles is the clear standout performance. He perfectly captures the mischievous grin Welles perpetually wore, while exquisitely conveying the endless contradictions inherent to his persona.

Director Richard Linklater, along with screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, also deserve enormous credit. Between them, they gradually unveil the various depths of Welles’s personality to create an extremely fascinating and doubtless, relatively accurate interpretation of the director.

And given that Linklater was himself something of filmmaking prodigy having directed, produced, written and starred in the critically acclaimed Slacker (at the rather young age of 31), it is perhaps fitting that he ended up working on this project.

On the downside, the stereotypically nerdy character of Gretta – who admittedly only appears in a few scenes – adds little of interest and constitutes a patently unnecessary diversion from the film’s central plot. In addition, it is obvious that the film could do with shedding about ten minutes of its running time and its ending in particular is unnecessarily prolonged. All in all though, Me and Orson Welles is drama of the highest order.

In a Nutshell: Likely to satisfy Welles enthusiasts and casual fans alike, largely thanks to McKay’s stellar acting.

Shadows On The Wall, Rich Cline, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

While this feels like an autobiographical coming-of-age movie, it’s actually a fictional story set among real people. And it’s brought to vibrant life by a superb performance from McKay as Orson Welles.

Richard (Efron) is a 17-year-old wannabe in 1937 New York, determined to get into the groundbreaking Mercury Theatre company run by 22-year-old genius Orson Welles (McKay). When he stumbles into a role in their landmark production of Julius Caesar, Richard can’t believe his luck. He’s working alongside such ascending stars as George Coulouris (Chaplin), John Houseman (Marsan), Muriel Brassler (Reilly), Jopseph Cotton (Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Bill). And he feels even more fortunate when Orson’s hard-to-get assistant Sonja (Danes) agrees to go out with him.

Linklater takes a strangely stiff approach to the filmmaking, with a jazzy Woody Allen-like underscore trying to build a jaunty tone as the story drifts along. Fortunately, there’s life in the dialog, and as the characters begin to emerge they pull us into the events while adding a strong zing of wit. And the film itself becomes a fascinating look not only at Welles’ early career but also the backstage workings of a theatre company.

Most intriguing is the insight into how actors hide in their characters and create art with (or despite) their director. Clearly, the film’s cast enjoyed the challenge of creating these layers: playing historical people who are playing Shakespearean characters under the leadership of the mercurial Welles. Within this they bring out lively personalities and extremely entertaining interaction. Efron is our entry point into this world, and he gives a strong, likeable performance even when Richard gets annoyingly petulant, forgetting how inexperienced he is both on stage and in love.

But it’s McKay who provides the electricity. He might be too old (he looks 30 rather than 22) but he gets Welles so perfectly that it takes the breath away. We understand why everyone hangs on Welles’ every word and lets him indulge in grandstanding improvisation. We believe this is a man who will change radio, theatre and film forever. And watching him through Richard’s naive eyes is great fun, even if the film can’t live up to Welles’ genius.

3 1/2 out of 5

Combustible Celluloid, Jeffrey M. Anderson, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles (2009)

Blustering around the theater, barking orders, gesticulating and generally putting on a show of genius, Christian McKay is the best screen Orson Welles since Orson Welles himself. In this enchanting fictional re-creation of 1937, director Richard Linklater shows Welles at work mounting Julius Caesar for the stage using then modern-day dress. The usual backstage madness occurs, and it’s simply magical to watch Welles as he might have actually handled it all. But here’s the drawback: Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is actually focused on a character called Richard Samuels, who is one of those “passive observer'” types. He’s the young kid who enters this exciting and strange new world so that all the characters can explain it to him (and us) as he goes along. It’s a device that Cameron Crowe used in the overrated Almost Famous (2000) and it has never really been very effective. Even the best actor would have trouble fleshing out such a role. But what’s worse — much worse — is that Richard is played by the super-bland, ultra-forgettable, pretty-boy “High School Musical” star Zac Efron. Between Welles and Efron is about six trillion miles of talent, but Linklater simply chooses to ignore this irony, which suggests that Me and Orson Welles would probably never have been bankrolled without Efron.

That’s just about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, but the truth is that it’s worth sitting through Efron’s vacant performance to get to the meat of McKay’s performance. Welles was a huge personality, with many, many quirks and defense mechanisms set in place, and like Charles Foster Kane, it’s unlikely that anyone really got to know him well. But Linklater and McKay find a chink in his armor and play it to the hilt, making an emotionally fascinating, flawed character of him. There are other characters in this ensemble, of course, including Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who likes Richard, but also nurtures relationships with Orson and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) in the name of her own career. Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, another dead ringer) is here, too. When he’s not hobnobbing with stars, Richard also hangs out with fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan); he listens to her with such a vacuous expression on his face that we can’t tell if he likes her or is just thinking about lunch. Linklater, who is a most un-Welles-like director, holds all this together with his usual easygoing flow. But, like Welles, he finds his art struggling against commerce and has taken a blow in the form of Efron in order to get his otherwise wonderful film made.

3 out of 4

Art & Culture Maven, Anya Wassenberg, 25 November 2009:

Zac Efron stars in Me and Orson Welles

Zac Efron stars as aspiring young actor Richard in this entertaining film set in 1937, inserted into the real life story of Orson Welles’ landmark staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In the space of a mere week before opening night, Richard talks himself into a role in the play, has a budding affair with an older woman (Claire Danes as the production manager,) has his heart bruised and his pride likewise against the sharp edges of unabashed ambition and over sized ego.

Efron’s solid as the centre of the film and our way into this story about the fragile magic of theatre and some of the realities behind what transpires on stage. He turns in an entirely convincing performance with just the right range from the kind of bravado that gets him the opportunity – as in this scene in front of the Mercury Theatre – to the naive vulnerability that sees him blindsided by backstage politics and the calculated maneuvering of his new colleagues.

If Efron’s our window into the story, its heart has to be the brilliant performance of newcomer Christian McKay as a young Welles. We get a real sense of the man’s sparkling genius, along with his impossibly capricious, self indulgent persona, the director with a penchant for keeping the entire company waiting while he chases the latest winsome young lady to cross his path. He tells Richard he’s a “God created actor”, and it sounds like a compliment until he explains the hollowness inside it, the empty space from which the desire to become someone else springs.

Welles’ historic production edited the Bard’s play and set it in modern times in Fascist Italy. I dabble in a little acting myself, not much, but enough to know that the film handily captures the rollercoaster chemistry of putting on a show, the sense of being at the mercy of a director’s whims (sigh!) and of the whole production forever teetering on the brink of disaster. With its peppy pace and a raft of amusing peripheral characters from John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) you won’t need any special appreciation of things theatrical to enjoy what really amounts to an accelerated coming of age story. Richard emerges a little older and much wiser, and as history tells the tale, Welles innovative production won him raves from audiences and critics alike, and cemented his early reputation.

Common Sense Media, S. Jhoanna Robledo, 25 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Despite its jaunty pace and rat-a-tat banter, it takes a while for ME AND ORSON WELLES to find its groove. Based on a historical novel by Richard Kaplow, it has the period details down pat, but it feels self-consciously meticulous, unable to really enjoy its script about the backstage foibles of a theater production. Perhaps it’s because, able as he is, Efron feels thoroughly too modern to believe, and the stage actors seem too, well, actor-ly. (McKay, as Welles, is compelling, but you never completely forget that he’s playing make-believe.) Claire Danes, as an ambitious secretary, emotes with authenticity, but even she feels overdone.

Then a funny thing happens on the way to (Caesar’s) forum: Halfway through the movie, we begin to care, largely because a love triangle of sorts develops. And by the time the curtains fall, we care very much indeed and are actually transfixed by the show we glimpse onscreen. (Linklater tried to recreate as much as he could of Welles’ Shakespearean oeuvre, and the icon fascinates.) The soundtrack carries viewers through beautifully, too. Bottom line? The movie’s imperfect, but it sure is a swell diversion.

3 out of 5, Cole Smithey, 22 November 2009

Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater’s lighthearted rendering of an imagined relationship between Orson Welles and a young would-be actor during Welles’s famed 1937 New York production of Julius Caesar soars whenever Christian McKay takes the screen (as the great maestro). But the film backslides whenever McKay is absent. This is due to a severe case of miscasting. Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a young bit actor chosen for his professed ability to play the ukulele. With his “High School Musical” haircut and phony charm intact, the ever-smug Efron isn’t equipped for the duality of qualities required for what should have been a fairly complex character. Claire Daines adds her own brand of off-key accomplishment as Sonja Jones, a personal assistant to Welles, whose “ice-queen” status provides the Mercury Theater’s male populace with unwarranted lustful thoughts. Linklater does a good job of capturing the vibrancy of Orson Welles when he worked in public theater, but fails to underpin the material’s Depression-era setting. The filmmakers would have done better to make a film called “Orson Welles at the Mercury,” and construct it around Christian McKay’s impeccable interpretation of the man he played on the New York stage in “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.”

SSG Syndicate, Susan Granger, 24 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

When you hear the name Orson Welles, you think “Citizen Kane,” right? But before that 1941 cinematic masterpiece, Welles revolutionized New York theater and radio.

This coming-of-age story, set in 1937, revolves around the few days that a 17 year-old theater buff, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), spent in the company of 22 year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), who was staging a risky, modern-dress version of “Julius Caesar” at the newly formed Mercury Theater that Welles founded with John Houseman.

“This is the story of one week in my life,” Richard says. “It was the week I slept in Orson Welles’ pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. It was the week I fell out of love.”

When Richard has the audacity to do an impetuous, curbside audition for Welles, he’s given a bit part and catapulted into the intoxicating, creative world inhabited by Welles’ icy, ambitious assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who coolly informs him that he’ll get no money, “just the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit.”

Working from Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo’s uneven screenplay, based on Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched young-adult novel, director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Before Sunset”) adroitly places the fictional Richard into a realistic context. While the plausible, behind-the-scenes vignettes are fascinating, the awkward romantic subplot flounders. What makes this concept work is Christian McKay’s astounding physical resemblance to Welles and his perceptive, spellbinding impersonation; McKay previously played Welles on-stage in “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.” What diminishes the believability is Zac Efron’s performance which is disconcertingly similar to his Disney “High School Musicals;” Efron never manages to convey the transformational emotional arc of his character. On the other hand, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, James Tupper, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly entertain in supporting roles.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Me and Orson Welles” is a spirited 7. And if arcane theatrical history intrigues you, check out Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock” (1999) about the Federal Theater’s staging of a pro-labor musical, also in 1937., Emanuel Levy, 11 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Grounded in actual theatrical history, Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” is a diffuse, intermittently insightful and charming tale about an important chapter in American culture.

The feature revolves around the audacious staging of “Julius Caesar,” in 1937, by a young brilliant director named Orson Welles, several years before he moved to Hollywood and helmed “Citizen Kane,” considered by many the best American film ever made.

The uneven screenplay by Linklater’s vet collaborators Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo is based on Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel, which was original in the way that it placed a fictional character in the midst of a more realistic context.

Linklater uses two narrative formats that are not always compatible, offering a look behind the scenes of the chaos, egos, and creativity in putting Shakespeare’s tragedy on stage, alongside a romantic coming-of-age, saga. End result is a film that offers some incidental pleasures but lacks a strong center and takes too long to get going.

Bordering on impersonation, a strong performance by Brit newcomer Christian McKay, as the imperial and egomaniac Orson Welles, compensates for the slight and light turn by Zac Efron in the lead, showing that the handsome heartthrob may not be ready yet for a major dramatic turn. (The part calls for an actor of the caliber of the young Sean Penn or Matt Dillon or John Cusack).

Though different in approach, focus and style, “Me and Orson Welles” shares some similarities with Efron’s Disney’s “High School Musicals” in providing details about putting on a show. The movie, which world-premiered to mixed response at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations), will be released by Free Styling in select cities November 25, 2009, but I doubt that many of Efron’s fans would see this period picture.

It’s unclear at first what attracted the gifted Linklater to this text, and the film’s first half suffers from the same problems that hampered Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock,” a chronicle about a unique moment in American culture, the events surrounding Orson Welles’ 1937 musical, which was shut down by government injunction due to the cast’s alleged left-wing politics

There’s also the danger that “Me and Orson Welles” would fall in between the cracks. The film is not strong enough as a romantic coming-of-age saga, and it’s not deep enough as a serious look at theatrical history. Moreover, those familiar with the historical background and dramatis persona might find the film lacking as for them there is not much new in this version. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the basic facts will be overwhelmed by the name-dropping of celebs (Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” was impaired for the same reasons).

“This is the story of one week in my life,” says Kaplow’s protagonist. “I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles’s pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. It was the week I fell out of love.”

Set in the world of New York theatre, the book and film center on a teenage student named Richard Samuels, who lucks his way into a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” re-imagined by the brilliant and impetuous Orson Welles. In actuality, the youthful genius Welles was only four years older than Richard. However, in the movie, actor McKay looks and behaves like Richard’s surrogate father-mentor, though admittedly, the real Welles always looked older than his age.

The week leading up to the opening night, whose date keeps changing, shows Welles to be cruel, manipulative, and calculated, staking his entire career on this risky production, but doing it all too consciously in order to put his name on the cultural radar. Meanwhile, the endlessly likable Richard wanders around, running errands, and socializing with everyone, from starlet to stagehand to producer and designer to Welles himself.

Rather unconvincing is the romantic triangle of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the slightly older woman and unapologetically ambitious production assistant whom Richard courts, beds, and falls for, only to lose her to his boss Welles, and later on to David O. Selznick.

However, despite problems, some of the vignettes are endearing and also revelatory. Allusions to David O. Selznick, another egocentric Hollywood producer, then in pre-production of his upcoming 1939 epos, “Gone With the Wind,” hit their mark.

And observations made by some of the film’s other notable characters illuminate the theatrical ambience that prevailed in New York in the late 1930s. Among those are the Mercury’s co-founder John Houseman (played by Eddie Marsan of “Happy-Go-Lucky” fame), who engages in endless arguments with Welles over artistic and personality issues. Ben Chaplin plays Mercury Theater regular George Coulouris, Kelly Reilly portrays spiky diva Muriel Brassler, and James Tupper is the future star Joseph Cotton (who would appear in Welles’ first two pictures, “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”).

The saga is nicely framed by crucial scenes between Richard and Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring writer he accidentally befriends at the Metropolitan Museum, and later helps in getting published, with the “New Yorker” no less. Marked by smooth dialogue, these interactional scenes are vintage Linklater, vividly conveying youthful aspiration as well as romantic intellectualism, two of the helmer’s most recurrent themes.

Richard’s on and off-stage adventures are meant to show how he changed, or matured but, as played by Zac Efron, the transformation remains vague, and at the end, despite humiliation, getting fired by Welles right after opening night and being dumped by his love interest, Richard seems to be the same hopeful and romantic guy he has always been.

Ultimately, the film belongs to newcomer Christian McKay, an alumnus of RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company, who immerses himself body, voice, and soul, in impersonating Orson Welles.

The movie was largely shot in the historic and restored Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man, which hosted the stage performances and backstage scenes at the Mercury Theatre, to which it bears remarkable resemblance. The New York streets were constructed on the back lot of Pinewood Studios, with interiors being filmed on Pinewood’s sound stages. Other key scenes were shot in various period locations in and around London, including the British Museum, which stands in for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomsbury Square and Crystal Palace Park.

Grade: B-

Movie Reviews by FAQs, Russ, 13 November 2009

Me and Orson Welles

Q: What’s the movie about?

A: A teenager (Zac Efron) is cast in the 1937 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and comes of age in the shadow of actor/director Orson Welles’ genius.

Q: Who’s in the movie?

A: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan, James Tupper, Zoe Kazan

Q: Is this movie worth the price of admission?

A: Proceed with Caution. You might try not to pay full price for it. Although, I guess this film could pique the interest of various fans, so here’s a handy guide. Screaming insane tween female Zac Efron fans: stay away and re-watch the High School Musical trilogy on DVD. Forty year-old gay men: sorry, Zac never goes shirtless, re-watch 17 Again. Orson Welles fanatics: it’s an interesting insight into a week of his life, pre-Hollywood filmmaker genius mode. Richard Linklater fans: I don’t know what to tell you, no one gets high in this film and Jack Black is nowhere to be seen.

Q: Will this movie make me laugh?

A: Yes. The overall tone of the movie is light and there is good wordplay and joke set-ups that pay off with nice chuckles. The funniest revolves around “the Quadruple Space,” but I won’t ruin it for you with an explanation in this review.

Q: Will this movie make me cry?

A: No. And it’s not built for it anyway so don’t hold that against it.

Q: Will this movie be up for any awards?

A: Nothing obvious. But depending on how it plays, a buzz could begin to circle for British stage actor Christian McKay’s portrayal of a young Welles… especially when they realize that he has never acted in a movie before.

Q: How is the Acting?

A: It’s all first rate if not spectacular. Christian McKay steals the show as a 22 year-old Orson Welles putting his budding genius on show. The performance sneaks up on you and builds into something completely authentic. Zac Efron might not blow you away, but there’s no denying his youthful charisma, perfect eyebrows and freakishly long eyelashes. He both naturally seduces and is seduced in a role that doesn’t call for much more than that.

Q: How is the Directing?

A: It’s serviceable and works on the relatively low budget the film was shot on. It doesn’t look cheap, but it doesn’t look expensive either. The period detail is all there, but it’s mostly done in medium and close-up shots, which undercut the grandeur of the period. Otherwise the whole thing skips along at a nice pace and never bores.

Q: How is the story/script?

A: Probably the biggest problem and the main thing holding the film back from a green light. Zac Efron’s character ‘Richard’ is the dual lead with Orson Welles and it’s an unfortunately underwritten part. Its purpose is for us, the viewer, to see Welles’ genius through the eyes of an everyman, but one can’t help wishing that we knew more about Richard and what he wanted out of life and his experience working in the theater. There also isn’t much conflict as Richard easily gets everything he wants up until the very end. There’s nothing glaringly wrong or bad with the movie, but as good as it is, it’s not hard to imagine how it could have been so much better with another script rewrite.

the blogpaper, Joe Griffin, 11 November 2009:

Review: Me and Orson Welles

The trouble with coming-of-age movies is that it’s hard for them to break beyond formula. You know the drill: teenager has life-changing experience (usually over a set time, such as a summer or a semester for example) in which he or she experiences romance, adventure and a little unfairness, all of which will gently push them into the exciting world of grown-ups.

It’s been a strong year at the movies if you like that sort of thing, and I do. An Education (though overrated) and Adventureland (underrated!) were both good, and now we have the most imaginative of the unofficial triptych; Richard Linklater’s playful Me and Orson Welles.

Teen icon Zac Efron (High School Musical, ask your niece) stars as Richard, a New York high school student with aspirations to the theatre, dahling. Fate comes crashing into his life one afternoon when he’s passing by a new theatre, The Mercury, and meets a rising young actor and director by the name of Orson Welles.

Savvy enough to lie about his ukulele-playing prowess, young Richard is promptly cast in a small role in Welles’s forthcoming play. In the run-up to the chaotic production’s opening night, the young thesp learns about acting, theatre, and of course, life.

While this is a fun premise, the portrayal of a larger-than-life figure like Orson is a tricky one. If the performance is too small, it won’t feel like Welles, if it’s too big, it might veer into caricature. Christian McKay, who looks just like Orson, gets it right. A whirlwind of ideas, talent, ego, anger and charisma, McKay’s Welles is believable as a pied piper to actors and investors. At this time the 22-year-old was a radio star and, as he did later in life, Welles ploughed much of his wages into his real passion. In this case, it was his theatre troupe and his now legendary, modern-dress version of Julius Caesar.

Efron as Richard is appropriately wide-eyed and charming. His musical background appears in small glimpses and he moves with the showy flourish of a dancer and actor – a sidestep here, a juggle there…It’s easy to see why Welles would want him around. Though it might be premature to adorn Efron with comparisons to other former pin-ups Depp or DiCaprio, he has potential and Me and Orson Welles is a step in the right direction. He’s wise to get involved with a director like Richard Linklater at this stage of his career.

You don’t have to know much about Welles and his friends to enjoy this film, but it helps enormously. It’s fun to see a young Joseph Cotton chasing tail, and to see Welles at the cusp of legend, when his future was blindingly bright and his name was synonymous with promise, fame and true greatness. Now, while he’s still considered a genius, he’s almost become as well-known for his adversities and stillborn projects as he is for his completed work.

Me and Orson Welles is an optimistic film, though. Even though it takes place in 1937 when (as one character puts it) “the whole world seems to be falling apart” and it doesn’t shy away from the occasional cruelty of showbiz, it’s about the power of art, the romance of theatre and the promise of at least one burgeoning career.

The NYC Movie Guru, Avi Offer, 27 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. In 1937, 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) bumps into theater director Orson Welles (Christian McKay) on the streets of New York City and gets cast as Lucius in his upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theatre. Richard has only one week of rehearsals left before opening night. During that week, he meets and falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater’s manager and sex symbol who others, namely, Cotten (James Tupper), have been trying unsuccessfully to woo. When Welles isn’t behaving stubbornly, giving orders and making harsh, brutally honest criticisms during rehearsals, he’s arguing with his collaborator, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). Zoe Kazan (Elia Kazan’s granddaughter) plays Gretta Adler, an aspiring writing and good friend of Richard’s, while Ben Chaplin shows up as an actor cast in the role of Mark Antony in the “Julius Caesar” production. Out of all of the performances, the most radiant and captivating one happens Christian McKay’s in the complex role of Orson Welles. McKay nails all of Welles’ nuances, frustrations, charisma and moments of genius with utter conviction in such a way that’s never goes over-the-top. You might actually forget that you’re watching an actor playing Orson Welles and think that you’re watching the Orson Welles. Zac Efron shows a modicum of charisma onscreen, but his character, Richard, remains not quite as interesting and well-written as Welles’s. His relationship with Gretta feels quite corny and contrived. However, when it comes to him and Sonja, it’s easy to grasp what Sonja sees in him that would make her feel so comfortable to be around him, other than the fact that he doesn’t try to get in her pants right away like others have tried. Director Richard Linklater includes a very authentic, impressive set design, costume design and a well-chosen, lively soundtrack that don’t seem out of place given the specific time period that the film takes place in. It’s also worth mentioning that co-screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo smoothly balance the dramatic and romantic moments with just the right sprinkle of humor and wit. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Me and Orson Welles manages to be thoroughly engaging, witty, charming and delightful. Christian McKay delivers a brilliant, utterly captivating and Oscar-worthy performance as Orson Welles.

Tony Medley, H. Anthony Medley, 1 December 2009:

Me and Orson Welles (10/10)

Despite what sounds like an ungrammatical title (it could be the end of the sentence, “This is the story of me and Orson Welles”), I’ve seen very few movies that I wanted to continue, but I would have been serenely happy had this kept going for another hour, it was so entertaining. This is a fictionalized account of the final week in preparation of Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) 1937 truncated production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” by the fledgling Mercury Theater. Director Richard Linklater has taken a brilliant screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo (from Robert Kaplo’s novel) and produced a scintillating recreation of a bygone era and a fascinating portrait of a man whose reputation as an American genius is more reputation and style than actual accomplishment.

Just about everything about this movie is terrific, but a big impetus in setting it on a plateau is the music (Marc Marot as music supervisor with original score by Michael J. McEvoy; I’m not sure who picked the songs and the way they are played, which include Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, but I’m assuming it was Marot). The music carries this film aloft to heights of enjoyment few films achieve.

The story of Welles is told through the eyes of an enthusiastic teen, 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who luckily lands a part in Welles’ first production for Mercury. As such he meets people like producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and young actor Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), falls in love with Welles’ assistant, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), and learns big lessons about life.

But, good as Efron is, this isn’t a story about Richard, it’s a story about Orson Welles, at the beginning of his life of fame and controversy. Although at 35 McKay is far too old to play the 1937 Welles (who was only 22 in 1937), he gives a bravura performance as a young man who seems in total control of everything. Unlike some other actors playing real people he doesn’t try to sound exactly like Orson, although there is a similarity. Instead, he recreates the man’s pompous personality, charm, and self-confidence.

The film’s presentation of that week of rehearsals, actors preparing for what became a memorable event, the way that Welles cajoled them into giving the performance he wanted, and the interplay among them all, is captivating. Because the film ignores his age, and because McKay looks like the 35-year-old man he is, it makes the viewing so much more enjoyable if one keeps in mind the tenderness of Welles’ actual years. Who he was, how he dominated, and what he accomplished at such a young age are truly extraordinary.

Welles used to eat lunch every day at Ma Maison restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Ma Maison was such an “in” place that it had an unlisted number. But it was worth the trip (even if the food hadn’t been good, which it was) just to catch a glimpse of the rotund former prodigy. Orson had a presence and McKay captures it with effortless ease.

I had a friend who appeared as a guest with Welles on a Merv Griffin show. Despite his confident appearance, she told me that when she looked at him at one of the breaks his eyes were filled with fear. Maybe his ability to hide and channel fear validates his reputation as an exceptional actor.

The weakest part of the film is Danes, an actress I’ve admired for her performances in films like “Stage Beauty” (2004), “Evening” (2007) and “Stardust” (2007). In this, unlike the others, she misses the mark. She is far too effervescent and scintillating for the part she plays, an ambitious woman who eagerly succumbs to Welles’ exercising his droit du seigneur to get ahead. Most of the time when she was onscreen I found her unpersuasive.

But that is far outweighed by the ambience Linklater creates, and the performances of McKay and Efron. I could have watched another hour. In fact, the only reason I looked at my watch was to hope that the end wasn’t approaching. This is a film that will delight those who, like me, exult in the hesternal excitements of yesteryear.

One Guy’s Opinion, Dr. Frank Swietek, 1 December 2009:



It’s not so much a performance as an impersonation, but Christian McKay does an extraordinary job of channeling the literally mercurial young Orson Welles at the beginning of his post-federally sponsored Broadway career in this fanciful recreation of the circumstances surrounding his triumphant staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in 1937. “Me and Orson Welles” is a curious project for Richard Linklater—a very conventional period piece from a director who usually works with edgier fare. But if you’re interested in Welles—and what cinephile isn’t?—it’s an amusing trifle. If not, well, there’s always “Dazed and Confused.”

The modernized, spare, heavily edited version of “Caesar” that Welles fashioned for Depression-era audiences also confronted with the rise of new dictators in Europe was the initial production of his newly-formed Mercury Theatre Company. And as Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, working from Robert Kaplow’s novel portray them, the final days of rehearsal were creatively chaotic and the first performance an overwhelming success.

As is often the case in such stories, the narrative is presented through the eyes of a naïve novice—in this case one Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a art-loving student who wanders into the company and is abruptly hired by the flamboyant, imperious Welles—at no pay, of course—to take a small role in the play. What follows is the boy’s assimilation into the troupe, which includes such well-known players as womanizer-leading man Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), cynical comic Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), intense manager John Housman (Eddie Marsan) and full-of-himself George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin).

But there are problems. Though Welles takes Samuels under his wing, even introducing him to his radio work (which largely finances the Mercury), the boy is ultimately nonplussed at the great young man’s cavalier treatment of everyone, especially Sam Leve (Al Weaver), the designer he refuses to give proper credit (just as he would later minimize—at least in the opinion of Pauline Kael—the contribution of Herman Mankiewicz to “Citizen Kane”). Even more distressing to the boy is the casual use Welles makes of all the women in his vicinity even though he’s married—something the youth can tolerate until the star’s grasp extends to Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the company’s beautiful general factotum whom Richard immediately falls for. But since she’s an ambitious girl willing to make compromises to advance, even though she likes the boy, it’s a good thing that Richard meets another, more suitable girl—frizzy-haired aspiring author Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), whom he actually helps get a story accepted by the New Yorker.

Though one has to admire Efron’s decision to bypass teen froth for the role of Richard, it must be admitted that he’s not quite right for the part—so handsome and self-assured that the character’s supposed nervousness never comes through. Still, he’s eager and attractive, as is Danes, who hits the right mixture of sophistication and cheek. Their relationship, however, and the one between Samuels and Adler, really play second fiddle to the material surrounding the colorful Mercury troupe. Tupper, Bill, Marsan and Chaplin might not bear the uncanny resemblance to the figures they’re playing that McKay does to Welles, but they show the right spirit. Linklater directs them all with genuine affection, if not much energy, and he benefits from a strong physical production that captures quite well the ambiance of Depression-era New York even though the picture was shot (very well by Richard Pope in atmospheric widescreen) in London and on the Isle of Man, of all places. Kudos are due production designer Laurence Dorman, art directors Bill Crutcher, David Doran and Stuart Rose, set decorator Richard Roberts and costume designer Nic Ede, as well as Michael J. McEvoy, who provides a jovial score supplemented by pop tunes of the time.

The picture includes substantial excerpts from the finished “Caesar,” and as so often happens in such theatrically-based stories, they don’t register as strongly as was obviously intended. (Even in “The Producers,” the scenes from “Springtime for Hitler” just weren’t as funny as Mel Brooks thought.) But even in those sequences, ultimately the movie’s sparkplug is McKay, who mirrors the young Welles not just in looks but in manner and socks across his combination of blustery showmanship, artistic genius and absolute self-regard. Welles certainly doesn’t come across as an entirely likable person, but he is a genuine force of nature.

“Me and Orson Welles” will appeal mostly to older audiences and especially to buffs who will be fascinated at this portrait, however imaginative, of the young wunderkind who went on to become one of the world’s great filmmakers. For them it will prove an agreeable divertissement, easy to take—and equally easy to forget.

WILDsound, Kyle Pedley, 1 December 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

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.

All of this does not mean, however, that Mr. Efron does not get to demonstrate his acting chops and prove his salt as a leading man in something aside from the teen fare he’s made his name in. As Richard (the ‘me’ of the title), Efron manages to convey the perfect balance of innocent determination with just enough romantic ambition and boyish naivety to really cement him as the figure the audience can latch onto and most empathise with – after all, like us, he is thrown into the world of 1937 New York theatre a relatively newcomer, not quite ready for the drama and inflated egos that inevitably follow. Sinfully handsome, utterly likeable and really showing that, after a splendid comedic turn in 17 Again earlier this year, he can also handle more mature and serious roles with real aplomb, Me and Orson Welles further cements Mr. Efron’s position as one of the most promising and capable rising stars working in the industry today.

The same level of praise can be heaped on the majority of the ensemble cast that Linklater and his producers assembled for the film, including British veterans Ben Chaplin in a sublimely snide and contemptuous turn, and the ever-reliable Eddie Marsan as the despairing manager trying to frantically handle the increasing pressure and stresses of getting the performance of Caesar up and running and desperately keeping Welles in line. Claire Danes puts in a no-frills performance as Sonja, Welles spunky, ambitious assistant who, naturally, ends up as something of a love interest for Richard.

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.

James King… movies, James King, 19 August 2009:

Zac Efron does a High School….Shakespearian Tragedy

Zefron has hovered around the edges of ‘growing up’ with his movie choices for a bit now. Hairspray was only a supporting role but it was a smart and cheekily political flick – nice move. This year’s 17 Again couldn’t quite boast the same attitude but it was pitched definately at a teen, not a tween, audience. That’s a big step up for a Disney boy.

Now comes the curveball. Me & Orson Welles will see Zac’s hardcore fans watching a film that deals with a 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by the legendary actor/director Orson Welles. Hmmmm, it’s hardly Keep Your Head In The Game, is it?

Well, yes. But that doesn’t stop it being interesting for people who manage to not wet their Wildcats knickers at the sight of Zefron’s floppy locks. Or even for those that do and who have a bit of patience.

Setting a fictional coming-of-age tale in the midst of a real event (Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe was groundbreaking) means that there’s a lot of facts to get up to speed on before the heartwarming stuff really kicks in but luckily director Richard Linklater knows what he’s up to. He is the guy who made coming-of-age classics Before Sunrise and Dazed & Confused after all. Me & Orson Welles is definately a case of slow and steady winning the race.

Sure, Zefron’s a bit too earnest and stiff at the moment, no doubt from years of training at the Mouse House. But he’s not bad. His naive character of Richard is meant to be a bit like that anyway, a wannabe actor who finds himself in a groundbreaking production after bumping into Welles outside the theatre one day. His poodle-like pursuing of theatre secretary Sonja (the luminescent Claire Danes) is genuinely ‘awww, bless him’ stuff.

Others are better though, most obviously newbie Christian McKay as Orson Welles, the respected thesp whose ego was as big as his talent. The spot-on New York sets (mainly filmed in the Isle Of Man) and Shakespearian snippets also rock. From the first shot, you’re slap bang into another theatrical era.

So be patient and Me & Orson Welles gets there. It reminded me a bit of Mrs Henderson Presents. And whilst that was also hardly contemporary or cool, its casting of (then) teen eye candy Will Young ensured it a bigger take than anyone expected.

So there you go. Zefron is the new Will Young! (You’re fired! Ed.), 19 August 2009:

Zac Efron in ‘actually quite a good actor’ shock!

Picture the scene: us at a preview screening of Me and Orson Welles, sitting right up front ready, willing and more than able to laugh our summer-lite socks off at the acting ’skills’ of one Zac Efron. Not only is he starring in a clever film – by Richard Linklater who did the beyond genius Before Sunset – but he is surrounded by actors of the calibre of Ben Chaplin and Clare Danes. How we were ready to snicker!

But no siree Bob. Nothing funny here. Move on if you’re looking for a laugh. Not only is the film charming enough to have your knickers off in ten minutes (a made-up drama about someone working with actor/director/arsehole Orson Welles), Mr. Efron has his Johnny Depp moment. You know where right before your eyes he is transformed from telly puppet to real life proper actor who’s going to have a long career and then go out with a supermodel before marrying a French singer.

The only fly in the ointment we can see is that Zac’s fan-base of smelly knickered teen tarts will hate it. But then, maybe that was the idea. Oh, and this picture here is from something else altogether. We just thought you might like that instead of chunky knits.

BeyondChron, Lee Hartgrave, 2 October 2009:

BEST NEW MOVIE FIND has to be “Me and Orson Welles.” Richard Linklater’s coming of age feature is set in 1937 and stars teen throb Zac Efron who plays a young aspiring actor. By a fluke he lands a small role at Orson Welles Mercury Theatre Company. Welles is launching a groundbreaking version of Julius Caesar. Welles has a huge-ego and he crushes new and old actors like bugs that just get in his way. He may be brilliant, but not a very nice man. …It is a beautifully crafted and disturbing epic tale of an unforgiving incident, an unlikely love and friendship that fades away. Julius Caesar may be on the stage – but two generations of characters drift apart. LOOK FOR THE OPENING – IT’S A SPELLBINDER OF BREATHTAKING BEAUTY! RATING: FOUR BOXES OF POPCORN (highest rating) – trademarked-

Joan & Melissa, Helena, 27 November 2009:

Me and Orson Welles: Review

Earlier this week I was treated to a private screening of Me and Orson Welles and was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved the movie! Knowing little about Orson Welles other than Citizen Kane, I went into it with an open mind, hoping to learn something new about such an iconic film legend. By the time the movie was over, I could understand why Welles has garnered such a lofty reputation as an eccentric filmmaker.

The film stars Christian McKay as Orson Welles – who was a dead ringer, by the way – and Zac Efron as a plucky actor who lands a role in Welles’ fledgling production of Hamlet. Now, I’m no screaming tween – but Zac was flat out awesome in this role! He really stunned me with his acting here, and made his character so likable that I found myself rooting for him throughout the entire movie. Claire Danes also co-stars as Welles’ ambitious assistant who quickly takes a liking to Zac’s character. I haven’t seen her in much lately, and I thought her role was refreshingly playful here.

This was a great period piece that really captured the excitement of the theater and the whole process all of the actors went through in order to put Welles on the map as a director. After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A session with director Richard Linklater, Christian McKay and Zac Efron. Christian was charming in his retelling of his “discovery” by the director, Zac dodged a potentially awkward marriage proposal on behalf of an audience member’s niece, and director Richard Linklater discussed the process of creating a film around such an engaging character. All in all, it was a fantastic experience, and I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone interested in learning a little more about Orson Welles!

The Wicked Stage, Rob Weinert-Kendt, 12 November 2009:

Alive and Welles

I just saw a brand new movie with Orson Welles in it. I swear to God: Christian McKay, in the new Richard Linklater movie Me and Orson Welles, is so good as the young Welles it’s uncanny, almost occult. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it–Geoffrey Rush’s Peter Sellers and Robert Downey’s Chaplin were good but they never made you feel, My God, that is the man himself.

The movie as a whole is soft slice of period pie, nothing too special. Through the eyes of a callow, starstruck teen played by Zac Efron, it portrays Welles on the eve of the Mercury’s fascist-styled Caesar–arguably a more crucial milestone for him and his theatrical career than the famous voodoo Macbeth or the Blitzstein musical. (It’s a rich career, however brief, to have that much to argue about.) There are welcome turns by Claire Danes and Zoe Kazan, and the historical casting is genius top to bottom–you’ll have no trouble identifying who’s supposed to be Norman Lloyd, John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, etc. And there are a lot of tiny references Welles fans will enjoy (to Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil, even The Third Man). But the main reason for any of us to see it is the privilege of spending a few hours in the virtual presence of that booming voice, those cocked eyebrows, that rolling gait and expressive arms. I’m told it will hit theaters Nov. 25.

Review: Me and Orson Welles

The trouble with coming-of-age movies is that it’s hard for them to break beyond formula. You know the drill: teenager has life-changing experience (usually over a set time, such as a summer or a semester for example) in which he or she experiences romance, adventure and a little unfairness, all of which will gently push them into the exciting world of grown-ups.

It’s been a strong year at the movies if you like that sort of thing, and I do. An Education (though overrated) and Adventureland (underrated!) were both good, and now we have the most imaginative of the unofficial triptych; Richard Linklater’s playful Me and Orson Welles.

Teen icon Zac Efron (High School Musical, ask your niece) stars as Richard, a New York high school student with aspirations to the theatre, dahling. Fate comes crashing into his life one afternoon when he’s passing by a new theatre, The Mercury, and meets a rising young actor and director by the name of Orson Welles.

Savvy enough to lie about his ukulele-playing prowess, young Richard is promptly cast in a small role in Welles’s forthcoming play. In the run-up to the chaotic production’s opening night, the young thesp learns about acting, theatre, and of course, life.

While this is a fun premise, the portrayal of a larger-than-life figure like Orson is a tricky one. If the performance is too small, it won’t feel like Welles, if it’s too big, it might veer into caricature. Christian McKay, who looks just like Orson, gets it right. A whirlwind of ideas, talent, ego, anger and charisma, McKay’s Welles is believable as a pied piper to actors and investors. At this time the 22-year-old was a radio star and, as he did later in life, Welles ploughed much of his wages into his real passion. In this case, it was his theatre troupe and his now legendary, modern-dress version of Julius Caesar.

Efron as Richard is appropriately wide-eyed and charming. His musical background appears in small glimpses and he moves with the showy flourish of a dancer and actor – a sidestep here, a juggle there…It’s easy to see why Welles would want him around. Though it might be premature to adorn Efron with comparisons to other former pin-ups Depp or DiCaprio, he has potential and Me and Orson Welles is a step in the right direction. He’s wise to get involved with a director like Richard Linklater at this stage of his career.

You don’t have to know much about Welles and his friends to enjoy this film, but it helps enormously. It’s fun to see a young Joseph Cotton chasing tail, and to see Welles at the cusp of legend, when his future was blindingly bright and his name was synonymous with promise, fame and true greatness. Now, while he’s still considered a genius, he’s almost become as well-known for his adversities and stillborn projects as he is for his completed work.

Me and Orson Welles is an optimistic film, though. Even though it takes place in 1937 when (as one character puts it) “the whole world seems to be falling apart” and it doesn’t shy away from the occasional cruelty of showbiz, it’s about the power of art, the romance of theatre and the promise of at least one burgeoning career.


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