The great man cometh
This backstage drama is a modest, likeable slice of theatre lore, writes Donald Clarke
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.
Larger than life: Zac Efron and Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles