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Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater

It is only appropriate that Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is no more naturalistic than the Shakespeare tragedy that figures as its play-within-the-play, Julius Caesar here shortened to Caesar. The film itself is not a tragedy, but it owes a great deal to another cherished Shakespearean form, the romance.

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is a bright but bored high school student living somewhere along one of the New York metropolitan area's commuter lines. Availing himself of an afternoon train, he bounces into the City and, just like that, into Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre troupe, landing the small role of Lucius. Young and fresh (and also very quick-witted), Richard engages the attention of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the ambitious girl who runs the theatre's office. Every grown man in the Caesar cast wants "to get into her pants," but Richard, who will be eighteen in December 1937 falls right into her lap, or she into his. The limits of adolescent sophistication dictate that he will take Sonja's "decision" to spend the following night with Welles (Christian McKay) very badly, and make regrettable remarks to the large and powerful ego at the center of his universe. Richard pays a terrible price for shaking his fist at the gods, and the worst thing about it is that, right up until the moment that he's presented with the bill (and for a few minutes thereafter), he thinks that he has gotten off scot-free. But Richard is so warm-hearted and good-willing (not to mention vitally youthful) that the film's ending is far more sweet than it is bitter. (Ms Danes's winning performance as a complicated and ambitious young woman contributes greatly to this effect.)  The limits of adult sophistication dictate that one can't help thinking that the worst thing to happen to a young man like Richard Samuels may still lie in the future, on some corpse-littered beach in the global conflict so soon to come.

While the romance lasts, however, it is utterly charming. Mr Linklater never for a moment allows his camera to peek behind the windblown curtain of Orson Welles's meteorologically unprecedented life force. The show not only must but does go on, and it is a triumph a triumph of the last-minute kind. Better not to ask how. The unlikeliness of a coherent evening of theatre, much less a great one, proceeding from the amateur-theatrical antics that occupy the bulk of Me and Orson Welles greatly exceeds the improbability of a high school student's flying so high on a week's lark from his desk and his textbooks. More shambolic rehearsals have never been filmed. Even when things seem to be going right, there is always the difficulty of securing Welles's crucial presence. (He gads about town in an ambulance, on the self-serving and dead-wrong theory that no law says that you have to be sick to turn the siren on.) But Mr Linklater doesn't want to scare us into dreading that Caesar won't be a success. He wants to share with us the thrill of the theatre, which consists, as Richard puts it to Sonja, in not knowing whether the show in which you've invested your all will be a hit or a flop.

(That was a test. If not knowing whether you're going to succeed brilliantly or fail ignominiously is a thrill, then you ought to give up accountancy, right now.)

We need a name for the genre to which this movie's story belongs. A reasonably sane young man is introduced to the company of wild and crazy entertainers. The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio over here) is a current exemplar, as is the now-classic My Favorite Year. My good friend Quatorze pointed out that the point of view is only ostensibly that of the sane young man; in truth, it is that of the adult whom the young man grows up to be. That's to say that it's a point of view capable of compassing both the young man's incredulity and the grown man's world-weariness. There is an awful grandeur in Christian McKay's portrayal of a megalomaniac in the making. The tacit title of the sequel, which glimmers in Mr McKay's deadened eyes, would be Whatever Happened to That Wunderkind?

Alongside the big parts Zac Efron not only looks like Tyrone Power but turns out to be a far better actor a lot of acting-for-love has gone into the making of Me and Orson Welles. Most notably, at least from our admittedly partisan viewpoint, that of Kelly Riley, who plays Muriel Brassler, Welles's Portia and who talks American as well as I do, only with scads more sex appeal. Ben Chaplin's trademark coal-black eyes warm up his elocutionarily riveting performance as George Coulouris, the Mark Antony of the production. James Tupper, playing Joseph Cotten, is an actor to look out for just as Cotten was in 1937. Eddie Marsan's John Houseman is so good that you wish that this were one of those Alan Aykbourn productions, such as House/Garden, in which an alternative movie, this one about Houseman's, would be showing in adjacent auditorium when Me was over. Zoe Kazan's hopeful New Yorker writer is super, too; although I couldn't stop being reminded of Chelsea Clinton, and wondering how the former president's daughter would speak

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

(December 2009)

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