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Good Luck, Bad Luck
by Chris Knipp

Everybody is full of promise and hope in Me and Orson Welles, a movie about a teenager who gets involved in Orson Welles' epochal 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar with what was to become his company of players, managed by John Houseman. The 22-year old Zac Efron, of the High School Musical series and the movie version of John Waters' Hairspray, gets more of a real dramatic role this time and acquits himself admirably as a highschooler from New Jersey who gets lucky and is hired to play Lucius and sing a song sitting next to Welles in the play, a revolutionary production.

Zac is too pretty to be true and so is the movie; it's a rollicking fantasy that's fun to watch, having a good time, and sure of itself, like Zac, but doesn't leave a very strong impression. The emotions in it are either jejune or theatrical, and soon pass. This was, however, an important moment in American Theater. Welles, only 22 himself at the time, already bestrode the worlds of the stage and the radio like a colossus. His spectacular, hysteria-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast was to come the next year, and Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons in four and five years, all while he was in his mid-twenties. The English actor Christian McKay, who had already put on a one-person production recreating Orson Welles, dominates every scene he's in here, uncannily evoking Welles, with the pudgy face and, when needed, producing the pout, the smirk, the twinkle and the roar.

Though the laid-back Linklater, delving into history for the second
time on screen, has achieved a buoyant production full of vivid scenes, none of it would have much point if this wasn't about a famous man at a seminal early moment. The movie establishes its reason for being toward the end with a series of vivid excerpts from a restaging of the Mercury production, headlined simply as "Caesar" and using stark, angular sets, bold lighting, and costumes to evoke ancient Rome as a modern fascist dictatorship. This production is something like the Ian McKellan film Richard III directed by Richard Loncraine) but it's bolder, more succinct and elegant. It looks stunning and original, and when the audience rises and roars at the end it seems justified (and true: applause reportedly lasted for three minutes).

The screenplay by Holly and Vince Palmo, adapted from a novel by Robert Kaplow, depicts Welles as an undisputed genius, a womanizer, an egomaniac, and an asshole, lording it over the company like a Roman emperor (though in his stagy, radical production he chose to play Brutus) and threatening (not without follow-up) to destroy anyone who does not obey. When the talented and cocky young Richard Samuels (Efron) bucks the great man over a girl called Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a stage manager, the youth's fate is sealed. The story is bittersweet: Richard gets to appear in one of the most famous productions in American stage history, but only for opening night. Richard's experience is a dream come true, but it all ends. Luckily he has high school in New Jersey to go back to, a shoe box of souvenirs, and his future ahead of him. Orson Welles is going to go on being a genius -- and an asshole; the latter quality may have something to do with his lifelong difficulties getting his films produced after his first brilliant studio pictures.

Welles has already successfully if ruthlessly cut Hamlet into only two half-hour radio segments. He takes Richard briefly under his wing (after all, he's only four years older) and gets him into a broadcast studio, telling the boy "you can learn all there is to know about radio in an hour." Watching through Richard, we get to see Welles interpolate a passage from what will be one of his adaptations from Booth Tarkington's Magnificent Ambersons into another drama show. He's a showoff, but his boldness and creativity are awe-inspiring. It's clear why everybody caters to his whims. and the multi-faceted dynamo can also be a charmer when he tries; else how could this married man whose wife is visibly pregnant sleep with all the women? When his wife comes to the theater, there's a code word the company uses to warn Welles to straighten out and be cool.

Zac romances Claire Danes even though his character's only 17, but he's relentlessly put down as "Junior' or "Kid" by Welles and the rest of the company. Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) is an ally. The theatrical world is full of superstition as well as ego, and all await one big stroke of bad luck that must come before opening night so that the opening isn't the bad luck thing. Zac unintentionally obliges. And then comes his moment of glory, singing and playing the lute on a step above Welles in the play. We may feel jerked around a bit, but it's all light fun; in fact the movie feels rather old fashioned. It was shot in England, which may have contributed to some of the lightness and the cuteness. The beauty of this film is how much of theatrical life it evokes. It has time for many individual crises and details of the Mercury production -- or at least the ones Kaplow and the Palmos dreamed up. It is also further lightened and made pleasurable by a lot of song recordings, mostly swing hits from the period.

Despite its focus on a monomaniac and a preternaturally self-possessed teenager, Me and Orson Welles is an ensemble piece, and there are many good performances, including those of Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris; Eddie Marsan as John Houseman; the up-and-coming Zoe Kazan as fellow literary ingenue Greta Adler, whose meetings with Richard bookend the piece; and Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd, whose performance as Cinna the Poet is a running squabble, one of many. Lots of the actors in the movie are prima donnas; Welles is just the most prima of all.

©2009 Chris Knipp