Me and Orson Welles

Movie Information

The Story: A young man finds himself a part of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and their modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. The Lowdown: A wildly entertaining, beautifully crafted film that captures the excitement of the theater -- and something of the genius that was Orson Welles.
Genre: Historical Comedy/Drama
Director: Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly)
Starring: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan
Rated: PG-13

No one could be more surprised than I am that I would love a Richard Linklater movie, but it’s true: I love Me and Orson Welles. It’s a film that proves other startling things—like the fact that Zac Efron can act and Ben Chaplin can be interesting. It also introduces us to an unknown Brit actor named Christian McKay, whose portrayal of the young Orson Welles is downright uncanny. Beyond that, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the theater, about being young and in love with art, about the first disillusionment with art, and about the ability to bounce back from that disillusionment. It helps immensely that the film is also just plain entertaining. I watched it late on a Saturday night, got up on Sunday and watched it again.

The story concerns a high-school kid, Richard Samuels (Efron), who is immediately established as being interested in the arts. He bumps into a girl, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, Revolutionary Road), playing Gershwin in a music store and bemoaning the death of the composer. This leads to a discussion of Gershwin and Richard Rodgers—complete with youthful overstatement (Gretta claims she’d give anything to have written the first five notes of “There’s a Small Hotel”)—and further revelations about each one’s creative dreams. (Justin Souther pointed out to me that this scene is one that keeps the film from feeling like a standard period piece, noting that two kids discussing Gershwin and Rodgers in contemporary terms translates perfectly into something modern by simply changing musicians.)

Sooner than Richard could possibly imagine, the opportunity for a full immersion into the creative world of the theater drops into his lap—and not just any theater, but Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and Welles’ version of Julius Caesar, with the play presented as a contemporary story of fascist Italy. He lands a (non-paying) role in the production by being able to play a drum roll (to herald the great man’s arrival) and on sheer moxie—the latter especially appealing to Welles. In no time, Richard is thrust into the storm that constantly surrounds Welles and any Wellesian undertaking. Everything appears to be chaos dictated by Welles and his egocentric desires.

Much happens—including a romance with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the woman who keeps the madness as in check as it can possibly be—and all of it is geared, one way or another, to the world of the theater and the realization of Welles’ vision. The more familiar you are with Welles and his company, the more certain aspects will mean. So many people central to Welles’ career are there—Joseph Cotten (TV actor James Tupper), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky), George Colouris (Ben Chaplin), Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill, Kinky Boots)—and recognizing that adds to the film’s resonance, but it’s by no means a requisite for following it.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film lies in the glimpses we see of the opening-night performance of Julius Caesar. Not only does Linklater capture the excitement of the event, but he does so in a way that justifies Welles’ ego, arrogance and apparent disorganization. He creates something truly rare—a play depicted on film in such a way that you really wish you could have been there to see it.

On its simplest level, Me and Orson Welles can be taken as a coming-of-age story, but in its way, it’s two coming-of-age stories—Richard’s passage to adulthood and Welles coming into his full-blown genius. Both levels have their share of joy and sorrow—and, if it comes to that, of two studies in self-promotion and the promise of self-induced downfalls. There’s a great deal more going on here than may be apparent on the surface.

The film’s attention to period detail feels effortless and authentic. I only caught one small instance of cheating where the popular music track was concerned: the use of the 1938 Benny Goodman recording “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1937. That it comes across so smoothly is all the more remarkable when you realize that much of the film was shot on the Isle of Man where the Gaeity Theatre offered the closest approximation of the long-demolished Mercury.

There’s very little to fault here and much to praise, but most especially there’s Christian McKay’s Orson Welles. If nothing else about the film had worked, his portrayal—embodiment really—of Welles would make the film worth seeing. He is truly astonishing, but in many ways so is the whole film. Rated PG-13 for sexual references and smoking.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Me and Orson Welles

  1. Dread P. Roberts

    Oh great, a movie that wasn’t even on my radar, that I’m now dying to see. With baby-sitting arrangements to be made, I’ll more than likely only have one shot at the movies in the near future. I’m so torn between this and Sherlock Holmes. Good grief, what am I to do. Thank God I don’t have to throw Imaginarium into the mix, too.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Good grief, what am I to do. Thank God I don’t have to throw Imaginarium into the mix, too

    Well, not till Jan. 8 anyway.

    For what it’s worth, here’s my take on your dilemma — Sherlock Holmes is a wide release and is almost certainly going to be around for a while (the fact that nothing is slated to open next week also plays into this). Me and Orson Welles, on the other hand, is at one theater — one of two in town (the other being the Fine Arts) that’s small enough to actually work toward local filmgoers’ desires. Whenever something out of the ordinary is at the Carolina or the Fine Arts, it’s in our best interest — as fans of non-mainstream movies — to support it.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Me and Orson Welles is going to play at the Fine Arts Theatre?

    No, I didn’t say it was. It opens Friday at the Carolina. What I was pointing out is that the Fine Arts and the Carolina are the only local first run theaters that aren’t part of or connected to a large corporate chain of theaters. As a result, they have the ability to be more responsive to customers in search of less mainstream fare — so long as those films receive support.

  4. davidf

    Ken, I’ve come to rely on you as a critic, because (unlike about any other critic that I’ve read with any regularity) the degree to which we tend to agree is uncanny. I’ve noticed the main points where our tastes seem to diverge concern Spike Jonze and Richard Linklater, especially Linklater. Linklater has been one of my favorite directors since SLACKER appeared when I was a teenager. The funny thing is that, when I read you review of one of his films, I usually agree with your points, but I excuse the flaws and love the films anyway because I’ve loved him as a director for so long. (For a most extreme example, I’m sure I’m the only one I know that owns a DVD copy of the truly horrible BAD NEWS BEARS, just because it’s fascinating to me that he made it.)
    Anyway, the point of all this is that to see that you liked ME AND ORSON WELLES as much as you did truly excites me. Now I just have to travel to Asheville so I can see it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Anyway, the point of all this is that to see that you liked ME AND ORSON WELLES as much as you did truly excites me

    Not attempting to dissuade you from the film, because I think it’s pretty terrific (and I doubt I could put someone who owns Bad News Bears off any Linklater film anyway), but the fact that it’s not like his other films probably has bearing on why I like it. Also, the subject matter speaks to me and interests me.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Wow. Christmas miracles do happen

    Hey, I didn’t give School of Rock a bad review!

  7. Ken Hanke

    Well, a Christmas miracle didn’t happen for this film. It tanked here and will be gone come Friday.

  8. Me

    “Well, a Christmas miracle didn’t happen for this film. It tanked here and will be gone come Friday.”

    Where at The Carolina?

  9. Ken Hanke

    Where at The Carolina?

    Yes, that’s one of the many places it won’t be playing come Friday.

  10. Jim Donato

    Am I glad we saw this on the 25th! When we went over our list of potential features to attend, we assumed that since it was only playing at one theatre, we should see it first. It was stellar! Christian McKay has given the most immersive, transparent performance since Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Fortunately, the film surrounding it lives up to it in this case. This definitely sits as Linklater’s high water mark and finally marks him as a talent to watch for me.

  11. davidf

    This was such a great film. I’m sad it’s gone. I’ve never seen Claire Danes more stunning than here. I’m hoping that Christian McKay will get an Oscar nod so that this can get more attention on DVD, or perhaps a second run.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I truly regret that they chose to book it when they did. It was a suicide mission any way you look at it — one made just that much worse by the previous weekend’s weather.

  13. No one could be more surprised than I am that I would love a Richard Linklater movie, but it’s true: I love Me and Orson Welles.
    Does it make up for WANKING LIFE?

  14. Ken Hanke

    Does it make up for WANKING LIFE?

    As long as I don’t have to see Wanking Life again, yes.

  15. Just caught up with this on DVD. A lovely touched I noticed was when Joe Cotton steps out of the shadows to tell Efron to ‘fight for her’ in what has to be a nod to THE THIRD MAN.

  16. Chuck Ives

    Zac Efron is miscast; he’s just too cute in an 80’s poster-boy way. The Danes and Efron date is an embarrassing, icky liquid center of an otherwise entertaining story of the Mercury Theater. McKay’s Orson Welles is a believable force-of-nature God/Man. But 5 stars are too many, Hanke, thanks to Efron and Danes (must remove a star). And the Benny Goodman song is titled, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It’s not a bad movie but as the critic in that quaint mountain town you need to sharpen up your critical faculties, lest a more discerning and concise critic should come along and replace you.

    • Ken Hanke

      Thank you for pointing out the song, which I suspect got changed in editing, because I certainly know what it is. And thank you for offering your quaint assessment. I’ll stick the my assessment, thouugh.

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