Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is a very enjoyable film about love and ambition that rarely hits the wrong note. I am not familiar with some of Linklater's most highly-praised films such as Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset, but after seeing this one, he is definitely a director I am going to be keeping my eye on. He commands his material just as much as his actors command their characters, and although it may be too tidy at times, the film is a gem. 

Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels, a high school kid dreaming of one day being a part of a big-time theater production. He doesn't really care what he does, whether it's acting, writing, or anything else useful, he just wants to be a part of it all. One day, while he is playing drums on the sidewalk, he catches the eye of a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay), and manages to be impressive enough to land the role of Lucius in Welles' contemporary production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Welles himself is set to produce, direct, and star as Brutus in the play, which will be shown at the Mercury Theatre. Once on the job, Richard seems to completely abandon high school life as he is not only in love with the play, but he seems to be falling for Welles' production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) as well.

One of the things that make this film so interesting for me is the way in which both Efron and McKay relate to their characters. Efron, like his character, is an up-and-coming star, an ambitious young fellow with something to prove. With this performance, Efron proves that he can create a likeable character that the audience can sympathize with. On the other side, there is McKay, a largely unknown actor who comes through with a breakout performance. Like Welles himself, McKay shows a great deal of authority and confidence as an actor, and truly dominates every scene he is in. 

I loved the way the film presented the "business" side of art. Most everyone in this film, at one point or another, stretches the rule book in their favor in order to get a leg up on their fellow competitors. While this film may not become as dramatic as it could, it still has some interesting things to say about ambition and whether or not it is justified to stretch your morals for a successful career. Although this film is set in 1937, the nature of corporate competition has never been greater than it is today, and many of the messages Linklater has for us remain entirely relevant to the modern day. 

This is also a film about the theater, and it's one of the best I've seen in that regard. Towards the end of the film, there are several sequences devoted to the play's opening night, and they are done to perfection. The audience really gets the feel for how suspenseful opening night is for these performers, producers, directors, and theater owners. There is a great amount of pressure on these individuals. In addition, the actual scenes from the "Julius Caesar" play that are shown are breathtaking.

Linklater makes it very clear with his title that this is also a film about Orson Welles. The man is such a marvelous talent, but a very flawed individual at the same time and those characteristics, combined with the mesmerizing performance by McKay make for one of the more interesting character studies of the year. Orson is a man with a pregnant wife, yet he's sleeping around with a handful of other women. He's also perhaps the most brilliant and confident artistic visionary of his time. The man only has a week to prepare this production and it's fascinating to watch him blow off his rehearsals as if they are meaningless. It is reminiscent of a high school kid waiting until the last minute to fill out a college application. This is a man who lives on the edge and loves every minute of it.

This is a film that is likely to be overlooked come Oscar time, and it's a shame. McKay gives a performance that is deserving as any of an Oscar nomination, perhaps even a win, and it is a film that is good enough to at least shake things up in the Best Picture race. I thought the film did a great job of representing its time period, both in look and feel. Some might jump to the assumption that this film is solely for theater fans or admirers of Orson Welles himself, but it's much more than that. It's a charming film that everyone can enjoy. 


Chase Kahn said...

Yeah, I liked it, too. Saw it today. McKay is brilliant, and I'm an Orson Welles nut, so it was an easy sell, but I loved that we both took the film as an examination of what it takes to break into the creative, artistic realm.

A realm where morals and honor and truthfulness just doesn't cut it.

Danny King said...

@ Chase Kahn: Right on. What's even more interesting is the fact that this film's examination of the artistic realm is entirely applicable to the present day.

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