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Me & Orson Welles (DVD Review)

23 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $1.2 million
$18.98 DVD (Sold exclusively at Target)
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sexual references and smoking.
Stars Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes.

Relative newcomer Christian McKay strongly “suggests” Orson Welles more than he precisely replicates the looks of that legendary one-man-band — much as the late Tim McIntire suggested martyred disc jockey Alan Freed in the 1978 rock lovers’ biopic American Hot Wax (a movie never even on VHS due to presumed musical rights quagmires and the well-known apathy of Paramount’s DVD arm to releasing anything made before 1980).

No matter. McKay, like McIntire, serves up one of the most on-the-button portrayals of a 20th-century pop figure that I have ever seen. Not even nominated, McKay should have had last year’s male supporting Oscar (and hands down, perhaps, if we omit Inglourious Basterds Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) due to the make-or break demands of his performance. But at least dean of American film critics Andrew Sarris, in his last year of reviewing, was able to place this “little movie” in several top categorical spots when compiling his 2009 best list.

“Little movie.” The term is mildly patronizing, though I’m as guilty as anyone of using it with some regularity. But truth is, any movie that solidly entertains (and with robust characterizations) tends to last if the word can get around — and this one will, too. Though its current status as a Target Stores exclusive isn’t necessarily the most sis-boom-bah-ish launch pad.

The story’s setting is New York City in 1937 — four years before Welles directed Citizen Kane and a year before he terrorized the nation with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. So at his oldest a just-turned-22, he’s mounting a Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar his own way (think a ukulele in lieu of a lute). Earlier, we’re told, he had axed the soliloquy from his presentation of Hamlet to satisfy length limitations.

Zac Efron (more than respectable, though outpaced by his co-stars) is the young acting hopeful and makeshift ukulele practitioner hired on the spot for a small role. The company’s Ohio-bred office manager (Claire Danes) is pretty, brainy, devoid of New York airs and a so-called “ice queen” impossible to bed — which, of course, makes her instantly attractive to Efron and every straight male in the company.

She has to manage a circus. There’s no money, the production is being constantly refined, and the cast is full of walking egos (albeit dwarfed by Welles’s own) who’ll be heard from again in coming years. There’s future Kane co-star Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), Kane featured player George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and producer-turned-actor John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). The older Houseman, of course, eventually won a 1973 supporting Oscar for The Paper Chase, playing a character a lot more intimidating than anything the otherwise ticklish Marsan suggests here.

As a backstage drama about mildly dashed youthful illusions, the movie reminds me a little of 1980’s never-even-on-VHS Those Lips, Those Eyes, which took place in a more modest arena (summer stock in the sticks). Credit McKay for sometimes making it grand, but there’s also some good dialogue from writers Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (adapting a novel from Robert Kaplow).
And while he hasn’t exactly done this while no one was looking, director Richard Linklater has little by little and without too much fanfare managed to amass a filmography that includes Slacker, Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, The School of Rock and this — and these are just the ones that I personally like a lot (others have fan bases as well). It may not be a Welles-ian output (the assertion that Orson only made half-a-handful of good movies remains one of those ridiculous myths that refuses die in some circles), but it’s an array that’s beginning to look something like the definition of an auteur.

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