Film review – Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Me and Orson Welles: Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)

It is New York in 1937 and a naive yet cocksure 17-year-old aspiring actor named Richard Samuels has just talked himself into a small role in a Broadway play. However, it is not just any play but a gritty modern version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by the great enfant terrible Orson Welles. A year later Welles would do his notorious radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and four years later Welles would make Citizen Kane, a film still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Me and Orson Welles is essentially a coming-of-age story with Samuels learning about life, love and friendship while enduring the trial-by-fire of working on a Broadway play. High School musical star Zac Efron plays Samuels perfectly, suggesting that Efron may indeed have a solid acting career ahead of him beyond his current tween idol status. He gives Samuels a very likeable blend of confidence, charm and vulnerability. The excellent supporting cast includes Claire Danes as Sonja Jones, the theatre company’s production assistant who is driven primarily by personal ambition despite developing feelings for Samuels. James Tupper is also a lot of fun as Joseph Cotten, an unashamed ladies man and favourite actor of Welles (Cotten would later appear opposite Welles in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Carol Reed’s The Third Man).

Me and Orson Welles: Orson Welles (Christian McKay)
Orson Welles (Christian McKay)

However, the performance of most note belongs to the relatively unknown actor Christian McKay who portrays Welles. Vincent D’Onofrio did a more than decent job portraying Welles in Ed Wood but McKay is astonishingly good.  His performance is more than simply mimicry as he completely inhabits Welles, expressing both Welles’s seductive charm and his cruel vindictiveness. McKay presents Welles as a charlatan, a conman and a genius. Welles was such a force to be reckoned with and in the film he is so charming that people often forget the ruthless way he could strategically dismiss, undermine, belittle or ignore people close to him. Welles’s almost duel personality is something that he himself is aware of, explaining that the reason he acts is because it is a “miraculous reprieve from being myself”.

Director Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, The School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused) has arguably achieved a career best with Me and Orson Welles. It certainly contains none of the slightly contrived philosophising that sometimes creeps into his other films and is instead a celebration of the optimism of youth with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It also functions as a glorious tribute to the power of theatre, capturing the chaos, fear, adrenalin and passion that goes into putting on a show. There is a great sense of that classic “the show must go on” mentality that makes theatre so magical but it is also an indictment of how ruthless and compromised the entertainment industry can be. With its wonderful period details, strong performances and fascinating characters, Me and Orson Welles is an incredibly enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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