Thursday, December 31, 2009

Me and Orson Welles (2008, Richard Linklater)

It’s become something of an awards-season cliché that actors are bound to get plenty of hype for playing famous people. Frankly, I’ve gotten a little tired of it- yeah, I suppose it’s neat to see, for example, Jaime Foxx playing Ray Charles, but once the initial charge wears off, the idea of one celebrity playing another feels like a thespian parlor trick designed to grab the attention of Oscar voters. However, Christian McKay’s justifiably feted turn as the late Mr. Welles is an exception- a full-blooded creation that transcends the requisite mimicry. McKay’s work is spellbinding, and his Welles is the rare interpretation of a historical figure that would be just as compelling a character had he not existed in real life.

Naturally, McKay has an advantage over bigger name stars in that he doesn’t carry the same amount of star baggage, which allows him to slip more easily into the role itself. But the brilliance of McKay’s performance is that he understands, deep down, that the image of Orson Welles that looms so imposingly over film and theatrical history was as much of a creation of Welles as it was the great man’s honest-to-goodness personality. His brash charm and titanic ego weren’t merely the results of his genius- they also allowed his genius to function in a society that can be brutal to those who stray too far afield from the safe and mediocre. Yes, Welles could be a bastard to those around him, even his closest collaborators. But who could possibly argue with the results?

Great man aside, Me & Orson Welles isn’t a great film about the theatre in the way that Topsy-Turvy is. Much of this is due to how blinkered its story is- young hero Richard (Zac Efron) is cast less than a week before opening night, and is sort of carried along by circumstance, with the assistance of plucky ambitious Sonja (Claire Danes) and the blessing of Welles himself. Welles casts a long shadow over this story, to the point where even his absence is defined by the fact that he’s not there. But while this isn’t particularly satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, it feels strangely right in light of the character of Welles. Throughout his career, the Welles mystique dominated practically everyone with whom he worked, although Joseph Cotten carved out a solid career on his own and John Houseman became an eminent figure in his own right after parting ways with his early associate. And needless to say, Richard and Sonja are hardly Cotten and Houseman, and they quickly find themselves swallowed up in Welles’ grand design.

But what I found particularly refreshing about Me & Orson Welles was that, for all his flaws, Welles is never made the villain. But then, Linklater has never been about bad guys. His potentially villainous characters are generally buffoons who need to be taken down a few pegs, such as Greg Kinnear in Bad News Bears, O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused. And if there’s one thing Welles isn’t, it’s a buffoon. He’s an egomaniac, a blowhard, a taskmaster, and a philanderer. But as Linklater’s forebear Renoir once put it, “everyone has his reasons.” Linklater is clearly on Welles’ side not just because of his genius and charm, but also because his shortcomings are part and parcel with his brilliance.

Also, I would be delinquent in my duties as a critic (albeit an unpaid non-pro version of one) were I not to mention the film’s other great supporting performance, courtesy of Zoe Kazan. Admittedly, the scenes involving Welles are the centerpiece of the film, and the primary reason for seeing it. However, Kazan is so good as Gretta, an aspiring writer with whom Richard has an ongoing flirtation throughout the film, that her scenes have a charge all their own. Gretta is the only major character in the film who exists independently of Welles, and in the hands of a lesser actress these scenes would feel like half-hearted stabs at a romantic subplot. But Gretta is no obligatory love interest, and Kazan’s presence transforms her scenes with Efron into a refreshing reprieve from the intrigues of the Mercury Theatre. Kazan is what is so often referred to as an “unconventional beauty,” but she’s warmer and more genuine than any number of cookie-cutter starlets, with a smile that’s absolutely glowing. In her own luminous way, Kazan gives just as much of a star-making performance as McKay does.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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