The great man cometh

This back­stage drama is a mod­est, like­able slice of the­atre lore, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

YOU DO half-won­der what Richard Lin­klater’s new film would seem like to a viewer who had never heard of Or­son Welles. It’s a story about a chap who, dur­ing the later years of the Great De­pres­sion, gets in­vei­gled into play­ing Lu­cius in a New York pro­duc­tion of Julius Cae­sar.

Over­joyed to be thrust into the the­atri­cal front­line, he gets a bit over-ex­cited and comes to be­lieve that the pretty the­atre man­ager might love him. Even­tu­ally, fol­low­ing a se­ries of mishaps, he al­lows the ex­pe­ri­ence to mould him into some­thing a lit­tle like a man.

Well, the Or­son-vir­gin might pon­der, it’s a per­fectly charm­ing piece of work. Zac Efron, star of High School Mu­si­cal, proves that he has the chops to es­cape teeny­bop­per is­land and forge a ca­reer as a lead­ing man.

De­spite be­ing largely filmed in the Isle of Man, Me and Or­son Welles gets across a sense of Broad­way life dur­ing one of its most ex­cit­ing pe­riod, and Lin­klater – wear­ing his main­stream hat – al­lows the story to am­ble along at an agree­able pace.

Our sub­ject could, how­ever, have one ma­jor con­cern: what is go­ing on with the guy who runs the com­pany? Puffed-up and pompous, he pa­rades about the set as if he’s au­di­tion­ing for the role of Our Lord God. De­spite his propen­sity to bawl out the male help and ball the fe­male staff, ev­ery­body seems pre­pos­ter­ously tol­er­ant of the man.

And what’s with that voice? Even when he’s or­der­ing a cup of cof­fee, he feels the need to project enor­mously to­wards row ZZ of the bal­cony. To para­phrase Jack Lem­mon in Some Like it Hot, no­body talks like that.

We are, of course, talk­ing about Mr Welles him­self. Chris­tian McKay, a job­bing English stage ac­tor, de­liv­ers a note-per­fect per­for­mance that man­ages to high­light both the ar­ro­gance and the ir­re­sistible charm of Welles at the stage in his ca­reer when ev­ery­thing seemed pos­si­ble.

It is 1937. The Mer­cury The­atre Com­pany is the most thrilling English-lan­guage troupe in the world. We are one year away from the War of the Worlds broad­cast and four away from the launch of Ci­ti­zen Kane. Here is Welles caught in mid-pounce, still as­cend­ing, with the prey – and the in­evitable de­scent – some way ahead of him. If you didn’t know he ex­isted, you sim­ply couldn’t make him up.

Else­where, Lin­klater works less hard at lo­cat­ing looka­likes for the more fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties in his story. Ed­die Marsan could not be more un­like in­domitable pro­ducer John House­man, and James Tup­per has lit­tle of Joseph Cot­ten’s charisma. But Lin­klater’s cast­ing de­ci­sions are, per­haps, canny ones. The slightly less charis­matic turns by the sup­port­ing play­ers only serve to em­pha­sise Welles’s tow­er­ing pres­ence.

The film is an unashamed act of hero wor­ship. The pup­py­ish awe that Efron di­rects at Welles is em­pha­sised by a cam­era that seems to tilt back in a swoon when­ever the big man en­ters the room.

In­evitably, the pic­ture cools down dur­ing the many se­quences that don’t fea­ture Welles. It would help if the story (based on a novel by Robert Kaplow) were a tad more dy­namic, but large sec­tions play out (ap­pro­pri­ately, you might ar­gue) like ex­cerpts from a de­cent if overly talky the­atre piece.

It feels odd to com­plain that Richard Lin­klater, cre­ator of funky, loose-limbed dra­mas such as Dazed and Con­fused and Be­fore Sun­rise, seems overly tied to a some­what hide­bound script, but the di­rec­tor has al­ways en­joyed frus­trat­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

At any rate, the con­tin­u­ing al­lure of Or­son Welles – and McKay’s un­canny abil­ity to sum­mon that quan­tity up – en­sures that the pic­ture is never dull. Still, if you’ve never heard of the great man, I would rec­om­mend bon­ing up be­fore you buy a ticket.

irish­times.com/thet­icket/

Larger than life: Zac Efron and Chris­tian McKay in Me and Or­son Welles

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