Friday, December 18, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

I’ve always thought Zac Efron looks more like a doll than a human being (I envision some giant 10-year-old girl combing his hair incessantly and setting him up on dates with her other toys). Fortunately, his dewy blankness is ideal for his role in Me and Orson Welles as Richard, an eager young actor coming to grips with the dispiriting realities of art and idolatry. He's an empty vessel craving substance, and the charismatic, commanding Welles (here played by Christian McKay, superbly mimicking the master) offers a template any uncertain adolescent could adore. When Richard lucks his way into a bit part as Lucius in Welles’ 1937 black-shirt version of Julius Caesar, he finds himself with a front-row seat for the full pyrotechnics show of a young genius about to burst onto the scene.

What follows is a fairly familiar coming-of-age tale rendered with some buoyant backstage hustle and nicely observed period detail (although the fascist allusions of the play suggest a different version of 1937 than the apolitical one we see here). I was utterly charmed by the film, imperfections aside—like so many other Richard Linklater projects, the whole is so smart and welcoming that it’s easy to forgive a few flawed parts. Even just as an illumination of Welles’ theatre work, the film is quite rewarding: the condensed re-enactment of his Julius Caesar that we see here is so thrilling and enticing I wish some brave director would take on the thankless task of bringing it to the stage for real.

Me and Orson Welles could easily get by on its abundant surface charms, but beneath the inside jokes and rich atmosphere the film does have some ideas about Welles and genius in general. In the span of his one week at the Mercury Theatre, Richard begins to realize the dark side of these artists he idolizes as he learns of the volatility—indeed, the immense, gaping vulnerability—that often accompanies the most brilliant creators. He witnesses the sobbing terror of George Coulouris before the man goes on stage (ultimately reduced to something cringing and baby-like as Welles coddles and comforts him), and even Welles hints that his own insecurity and self-loathing are at the root of his acting.

In death—as in life too, come to think of it—Welles is valued more as a myth than a man. He’s become this symbol for the pitfalls of precocious genius, the battle of ego and fame versus art and inspiration. This is a trap many have fallen into while attempting to capture Welles in fiction. One of the biggest weaknesses of Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock—another period piece about Welles’ theatre work—is the oversimplified treatment of Welles and the readiness with which Robbins accepts the received notions of the director’s persona. By contrast, Linklater’s treatment is a little more affectionate, while still exploring the sharp edges of Welles’ character. Even if he’s still more symbol than flesh, at least the film has something to say about it.

The film is ambivalent about the nebulous quality that is genius—admiring its fruits, yet wary of the cost. After Welles tosses aside Richard, the boy seems at first hurt, but eventually acquiesces to his fate with what seems like relief. It’s a terrible burden, this being a tool of greatness, forced to submit to its every whim (again, I imagine poor doll-like Efron in the hands of that infant ogress, finally stuck in a toy car next to Hannah Montana).

Fittingly for such an enchanting yet minor work, there’s a fable-like quality to all of this, as if the whole week with the Mercury Theatre were somehow a dream that Richard has woken from by the end. Unwisely, the film tries to cling to that same wistful, daydream atmosphere in its final scene and tempts mawkishness as a result. What's so wrong with just waking up?

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