Backstage story will delight Orson Welles buffs

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:52pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

We get a peek at one of the most exciting moments in 20th-century theater in “Me and Orson Welles,” a laid-back coming-of-age tale from director Richard Linklater and novelist Robert Kaplow.

The movie revolves around a (fictionalized) episode in the career of the meteoric Mr. Welles, the actor-director who would go on to create “Citizen Kane” and a few other greatest movies ever made.

It’s 1937, New York City, and a restless teenager from the outer boroughs finds himself drawn into Welles’ orbit. The kid is Richard (heartthrob Zac Efron), who’s got some vague ideas about being an actor, maybe, or something.

Impulsively pulled into a small part in Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” Richard gets to view the genius at close range. Welles explains to Richard that the boy’s scene in “Julius Caesar” is meant to humanize the character of Brutus, played by Welles.

Later, we see Welles himself being humanized in a scene where he rhapsodizes to Richard about the novel “The Magnificent Ambersons.” But the parallel is not as simple as it seems, for Welles is consciously humanizing himself — there are many layers to be peeled here.

Since Richard’s other experiences tend to be somewhat standard-issue — romance with a production assistant (Claire Danes, fine as usual), a touch of bickering with his family — his brush with Welles is the movie’s main attraction.

Key to this is the actor playing the cigar-puffing, wall-rattling, charm-oozing Orson Welles. The impersonator is Christian McKay, a British actor with an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Welles.

McKay revels in the part, and if you’re a fan of Welles, you will get a tremendous kick out of watching him shoulder his way through the role. The only knock against him is his age; McKay is in his mid-30s, while the actual Welles was an astonishing 22 years old when he gobbled up Broadway.

As vibrant as McKay is, he rather bowls over “High School Musical” star Efron, who’s the weak link here. Yes, Richard is supposed to be a passive observer, but Efron tends more to the wet-noodle end of the spectrum.

Eddie Marsan plays Welles’ exasperated producer John Houseman, Ben Chaplin is fussy actor George Coulouris and James Tupper is a lookalike for Joseph Cotten, the future Hollywood star who began in the Welles universe.

Zoe Kazan, a rising young actress, plays a plain-spoken girl Richard meets outside the theater. Kazan’s grandfather, Elia Kazan, was part of the real New York theater scene in the 1930s, a nice subliminal connection.

Under the genial direction of Linklater (a keen student of film history), the story gives a warts-and-all view of Welles, who comes across as a manipulative egomaniac as well as a genius. As such, it becomes one more angle on the hall of mirrors that is Orson Welles.

“Me and Orson Welles”

1937 New York: a theater-happy teen (Zac Efron) is drawn into the thrilling orbit of phenomenon Orson Welles (a tremendously enjoyable impersonation by Christian McKay), who is staging a legendary “Julius Caesar.” Director Richard Linklater’s laid-back approach is best at portraying the warts-and-all genius of Welles at work in the theater. With Claire Danes.

Rated: PG-13 for language, subject matter

Showing: Seven Gables

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