By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009
"Me and Orson Welles" is a love story, but not the kind you would think.
The title notwithstanding, this gently charming comedy has nothing to do with any romance between the late actor-director-genius and anyone other than himself. As portrayed by Christian McKay -- who has the wunderkind's arrogant bearing, sonorous voice and giant ego down cold -- Welles is too self-absorbed to care about anything other than his art. And that includes his very pregnant wife (Emily Allen), whom he neglects in favor of any woman in the cast who'll have him. McKay's Welles is a man of outsize appetites -- sexual, gustatory and artistic -- and the actor's performance is hugely satisfying.
Set over the course of a single week in November 1937, "Me and Orson Welles," by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater ("Before Sunset"), is based on Robert Kaplow's historical novel of the same name about Welles's Mercury Theatre and its acclaimed, modern-dress production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Told through the eyes of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an aspiring actor who stumbles into a bit part in the play, the movie does involve a traditional boy-meets-girl subplot: No sooner has Richard arrived than he's making goo-goo eyes with Sonja (Claire Danes), an older, worldly wise production assistant. And she's making them right back.
It doesn't ruin things to know that first Richard gets lucky then gets his heart broken. Richard and Sonja's destiny turns this into a somewhat predictable coming-of-age story. But that's not the real love story I'm talking about either.
Rather, "Me and Orson Welles" is a movie in love with live theater. And not just with the finished product either, though Linklater lavishes much screen time near the end of the film showing how and why Welles's adaptation would have wowed audiences at the time. "Orson Welles" is head over heels, sometimes even giddily, in love with the magic, the risk and the drama (both on stage and off) that go into putting on a show.
It's "Glee" for the literary set.
When Richard is cast, for instance -- based on little other than his ability to sing -- the play is still in a shambles. Its director, Welles, is habitually late for rehearsal. Music cues are being changed every day. Roles are being cut and then restored right and left, and everybody is trying to get into everybody else's pants or having a nervous breakdown.
As anyone who has ever worked on a play knows, that's pretty typical. It's also pretty esoteric stuff. It's an open question as to who, outside theater geeks, will find this inside-baseball approach quite as fascinating as Linklater apparently does.
That said, there's much to recommend "Orson Welles" to the general population. Or at least the part of it that loved "Bullets Over Broadway." In addition to McKay, Danes makes a sassy, sexy Sonja. And Efron more than gets by in his role as the sweet, plucky, starstruck newbie. It's a part that doesn't require much heavy lifting, though.
In fact, I would have liked to see more interaction between Richard and Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer Richard meets in a sheet-music shop and who keeps popping up in the kind of New York City serendipity you see only in movies. Played by Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan, Gretta is one of many small delights here.
As for getting that wreck of a play into shape with only one week to go before opening night? It may sound like another cliche, but as any theater geek will tell you: It's true. A lot can happen in seven days.