Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Directed by Richard Linklater

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Me and Orson Welles is a very neat movie.  It’s a melodrama about a series of romances, all involving our young hero, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron).  The first romance involves his admirations for the arts, expressed through his mentorship with Orson Welles (Christian McKay).  The second involves romantic feelings for Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who works with Welles, and the final romance is more of a romantic comedy-esque meet cute between Richard and a young aspiring writer, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan).

Gretta Adler is only in a handful of scenes, bookending the bulk of the movie’s plot, and her character comments on the nature of plot and melodrama in fiction as if the words might be coming from director Richard Linklater himself.  I took this to be the only real moment in which Linklater offered his opinion on a story such as this, one that is well-executed but also just kind of neat.  It’s below the tier of movies he’s made that feel ripped from his psyche (SlackerBefore trilogy, Dazed and ConfusedBoyhood, etc.) and one of the ones like Bad News Bears or Fast Food Nation for which he’s just a hired hand.

Adler, as a writer herself, asks Richard why stories have to have any plot at all.  She finds plot to be so melodramatic, and later in the story the movie does take a melodramatic turn when Richard’s affections for Sonja are rebuffed.

The story follows Richard’s sudden indoctrination into the theater troupe of a young Orson Welles.  The events of the film take place in 1937 New York where Welles is the director of the Mercury Theater.  He’s a big personality, bold and harsh, proud and occasionally vengeful.  When Richard, himself a student and aspiring actor, makes an impression on Welles, the legendary figure hires him on to play Lucius in the upcoming performance of Caesar.  Right off the bat, this inciting incident is kind of crazy, like the fever dream of a young artist.

Richard increasingly abandons his school life for this far more exciting life in the theatre.  The film is a playful comedy, and nothing in the story ever feels too dramatic but it’s also never all that funny.  It’s just a group of people having a good time, and you get the sense that Linklater himself would’ve wanted to hang out and watch Orson Welles direct rehearsals.

Linklater’s films often feel this playful and curious.  People love to say that he loves his characters, always making them feel real rather than archetypical, and though Welles borders on two-dimensional, Linklater stages the whole film as if it’s just a bunch of characters performing for each other.  Welles, the character, is always performing.  You never get the sense that he has let his guard down or is truly vulnerable.  Everything he does is part of a calculated set of actions.

And that performative nature of Welles, and to a lesser degree the other cast members, helps give the film a larger than life quality.  It’s all too good to be true, both for Richard and for us.  It’s kind of surreal being able to watch a young Orson Welles work in such detail.  He is such a legendary cinematic figure that the idea of him ever being just a person doesn’t quite compute.  And McKay’s performance as Welles is kind of incredible. He looks the part, and everything he says sounds Shakespearean.  You can feel the way his voice booms, even during the quietest of scenes.

As Richard, Zac Efron plays a much more down the middle role.  His character, like so many in these types of stories where someone enters a big and flashy new world, is more of a blank slate.  He’s handsome, polite and capable.  His character is only defined as much as necessary to justify his place in the story, but beyond that he is just someone we can imagine ourselves as.  He is the audience, watching Welles with the same fascination as we’re meant to have.

As the two love interests, Danes and Kazan get noticeably less to do.  Their characters just fill out a part in the story, the expected love interest of a melodrama and the fallback love interest needed to give the movie it’s happy ending.  It’s a little disappointing, and maybe there is a degree of lamp shading going on simply by having Adler comment on the silliness of a melodramatic plot before giving us that same melodramatic plot.  It’s the type of thing that seems forced upon the movie by the studio.

As a whole, the film is bright and slightly-sepia toned in the way so many period pieces are.  Everything is well-lit and mostly controlled on a soundstage so that even the outdoor scenes appear to have been shot on sets that limited the movement of the camera.  Every shot is like a glamour shot of a particular actor.  They are all meant to be attractive, larger than life and to give us a sense that this world is off-limits, we’re just lucky to be flies on the wall.

Up Next: What If (2013), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Bernie (2011)

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