‘Me and Or­son’ re­lives the­atri­cal troupe

> Film views Welles’ bud­ding ge­nius and his Mer­cury The­atre

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Movies - By John Bei­fuss


The most en­ter­tain­ing movie open­ing this Christ­mas week­end is only at Malco’s Ridge­way Four. “Me and Or­son Welles” is set on Broad­way in 1937, as the con­fi­dent but not yet world-fa­mous Welles (played with con­vinc­ing boy­ish charm and ego­ma­ni­a­cal blus­ter by Chris­tian McKay) pre­pares to open his Mer­cury The­atre with an in­no­va­tive pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s “Julius Cae­sar,” reimag­ined in Fas­cist drag. The “me” of the ti­tle is Richard Sa­muels, a 17-year-old high school stu­dent who lucks his way into the mi­nor role of Lu­cius, a lute-strum­ming ser­vant. Richard is played by for­mer Dis­ney Chan­nel hearthrob Zac Efron, whose hooded eyes add an el­e­ment of Do­rian Gray deca­dence to his pretty-boy pinup fea­tures.

As Richard be­comes en­am­ored of his, um, mer­cu­rial new “fam­ily,” he falls for smart, in­de­pen­dent Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), as­sis­tant to the­ater man­ager John House­man (Ed­die Marsan). House­man and Welles aren’t the only fa­mil­iar names among the cast of char­ac­ters; other Mer­cury play­ers who later found fame or at least work in the movies in­clude Joseph Cot­ten (James Tup­per), still-alive-and­kick­ing-at-95 Nor­man Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Ge­orge Colouris (Ben Chap­lin), who was un­for­get­table as “Mr. Thatcher” when Welles made the leap to movies with “Ci­ti­zen Kane.”

“Me and Or­son Welles” is a rare pe­riod piece for Richard Lin­klater, prob­a­bly the most in­ven­tive, ver­sa­tile and pro­lific Amer­i­can di­rec­tor now work­ing, with the ex­cep­tion of Steven Soderbergh. Lin­klater’s films range from the Jack Black hi­jinks of “School of Rock” to the ro­to­scoped sci-fi so­cial com­men­tary of “A Scan­ner Darkly” to the real-time ro­mance of “Be­fore Sun­set,” but “Or­son Welles” may re­mind fans of his com­ing-of-age cult clas­sic “Dazed and Con­fused” (1993), in which an im­pres­sion­able teenager named Mitch hangs with a crew of high school show-offs, beau­ties and hang­ers-on that’s al­most as the­atri­cal as the troupe at the Mer­cury.

“Me and Or­son Welles” is a trib­ute to the the­atri­cal life (Lin­klater re-cre­ates sig­nif­i­cant mo­ments from Welles’ “Cae­sar,” and also shows us the live broad­cast of a ra­dio drama) and to the trans­for­ma­tive power of art — not just for the au­di­ence (which gives “Cae­sar” a stand­ing ova­tion) but es­pe­cially for the artists who make it. Much is made of the no­tion that art can make a per­son im­mor­tal, at least in the minds of those who ap­pre­ci­ate the art. Welles — who has a preg­nant wife, and the pick of the women in the the­ater — says act­ing en­ables him to es­cape the nonartist self that he hates; he be­lieves his art will make his­tory. Richard and a would-be writer (Zoe Kazan) con­tem­plate a Gre­cian urn at a mu­seum, and think about Keats’ poem, which also is a med­i­ta­tion on art; they dis­cuss great song­writ­ers, and mourn the re­cent pass­ing of Ge­orge Gersh­win. But “Me and Or­son Welles” is any­thing but mourn­ful; it’s cel­e­bra­tory and in­spir­ing.

Freestyle Re­leas­ing

Or­son Welles (Chris­tian McKay) and Richard Sa­muels (Zac Efron) star in the pe­riod film “Me and Or­son Welles.”

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