The world of theatre casts a magical spell on some people. The genre, style or setting is irrelevant. From musical to classic Shakespearean interpretation to community to high budget or no budget, it doesn't matter. People who are touched with the love of theatre never seem to let it go once they've gotten a small taste.
If you are such a person, Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles will hit you right in your pleasure zone. Solid but not spectacular, the film is such a nostalgic, warm-hearted trip into the theatre world that it might inspire others to take the leap into the realm of theatre to see what all the fuss is about.
Me and Orson Welles is set in New York City circa 1937. Richard (Zac Efron) is a bored suburban high school student. Classes are long-stretches of daydreams out the window or a book clandestinely hidden behind a textbook. When classes are over, he hops on a train that takes him to New York, where he can walk the streets, hang out in music stores, meet girls and be someone he isn't in his stifling home and school.
Richard fancies himself an actor. Anything connected to theatre will do but being on the stage is preferable. One day, while he's wandering the city, he finds himself at the Mercury Theatre, whether this is an accident or planned by Richard, we are never told.
After an unexpected, impromptu, afternoon sidewalk audition, he finds himself entangled in the powerful orbit of Orson Welles and an upcoming play. Richard still has to call home and make up excuses to Mom for staying out late, but all of it is worth it to be in a real play, with real actors, not some silly teenage aspect of the life he's escaping.
The world Richard has stepped into is one of uncertainty. The Mercury Theatre is preparing its first play, Julius Caesar, there is little money coming in and the person in charge of the play and future success of the theatre is 21 year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay). If the play bombs, the Mercury theatre does, too. The play might work, but Welles doesn't make it easy on cast and crew. He's the center of everything. He's a blustering dictator that is all raging egomania--bellowing, belittling and sweet-talking the cast in equal measures to get what he wants. Orson usually gets his way, whether it is on the stage, with women or who has the upper hand in relationships.
Richard is love-struck by not only Welles' dynamic personality (it would be hard to resist someone so magnetic despite all the negatives) but there are also girls to consider that complicate matters. There's Sonja (Claire Danes), the sophisticated, experienced theatre girl who dispenses opinions, advice and flirtations with aplomb. Or, there's Greta, a quirky, creative and sweet girl near Richard's age.
No surprise, one is more dangerous than the other, one would be better for Richard than the other.
What is it about theatre that draws people into its world? Based on events in the film, it's a combination of things. Me and Orson Welles' best moments are tied to its recreations of what it is like to be in a theatrical company during this time. The film might be centered around Richard and his relationships with Welles, Sonja or Greta, but at its core it is an ode to theatre, to acting, the visceral rush of performance and the glorious rapture of an audience's adulation.
Me and Orson Welles captures all the elements of theatrical life. Acting is portrayed as the ultimate escape from yourself and sure, that's heady stuff, but theatre is more than just that. There's the us against the world bonding, the gossip, the numbing rehearsals, the insecurities, the clashing of egos and personalities, the superstitions, the worry, the opening night jitters, the romances--it's all on the screen at some point in the movie. I must admit, it sure does look fun. Maybe I need to take up acting and head to some auditions?
Theatre is always a collective of individuals, and while Efron, McKay and Danes are the leads, time is given to smaller characters to attempt to tap into a more ensemble feel during Me and Orson Welles. Like everything else in the film, the cast is solid.
Efron gets to sing a little bit to please any of his curious, looking for Zac in something less mainstream than High School Musical fans. McKay comes off a bit too old to play Welles (he's 36, Welles was 21), but at times, he sounds and appears so uncannily like him it's as if he's channeling Welles' ghost.
Linklater is a filmmaker who makes interesting, entertaining films that are usually worth seeing but don't wow the audience. This is another such film. While he gravitates to the slightly off-kilter, there's nothing flashy about his style and technique. He likes dialogue and ideas. His films sometime veer into a territory that seem to be drawn from a play (watch his Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and imagine how both could exist as wonderful theatre) so it shouldn't be a surprise that he has made a film set in the world of the theatre. Me and Orson Welles is a very mature, assured, confident piece of work from Linklater that won't astound but is still very enjoyable.
Me and Orson Welles is a lovingly crafted historical love letter to the world of theatre. It stuffs all the highs, lows, the bittersweet and the confusion of what it's like to face the risk of putting a performance. The film is cloaked in a story about the coming of age of a teenager and Orson Welles but that is just the hook. Me and Orson Welles has a bigger ambition: to show us the performance, the performers and anyone else brave enough to fling open the doors of a theatre and invite in a horde of strangers to watch the stage in silent judgment from the darkened rows of seats in front of the stage.
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