Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Me and Orson Welles"

Title of movie: Me and Orson Welles

Reasons for anticipation:
Zac Efron is sooo dreamy!

Kidding! No... my reasons for anticipating this have nothing to do with teen heartthrobs, and everything to do with the fact that I am totally obsessed with backstage dramas, and the 1930s, and the American theater of that time, and the portrayal of theater on film... So this movie, being the story of Orson Welles' 1937 production of Julius Caesar, would surely be amazing--wouldn't it?

My verdict: Unfortunately, Me and Orson Welles is not as awesome as I'd hoped. It plays like a fairly generic backstage drama/coming-of-age story, rather than pinpointing what is specifically interesting about Welles and his Caesar.

It's a charming movie, but very lightweight, and at two hours, a bit too long. (It's supposed to deal with the frantic final week before the opening of Caesar, but is not paced very urgently.) What it has to say about the theater--actors can be needy and insecure and vain and petty, making art involves a lot of bluster and bullshit, there is always a crisis but the show always manages to go on--has all been said many times before. The idea of the "genius artist who is also a pain in the ass to work with" is also a cliché, even if Orson Welles was a pretty stellar real-life example of the type.

But then, the movie never explains why Welles was a genius or what made his Caesar so revolutionary. You see, in 1937, it was mindblowing to update Julius Caesar to the present day and stage it as an anti-Fascist polemic, as Welles did. But because the movie focuses on the shenanigans of the last week of rehearsal, and is told through the perspective of naive teenager Richard (Zac Efron), it never reveals the social/political/philosophical implications of Welles' production.

The other mindblowing thing is that Welles was only 22 when he produced, directed, and starred in Caesar; in other words, he was the same age as Zac Efron is now. But good luck finding an actor who resembles the baby-faced 22-year-old Welles (at left), and can imitate his famous voice, and convey the immensity of his character--his genius, his hubris, his desires. Faced with such a challenge, Me and Orson Welles decided that the best it can score is two out of three, and cast unknown British actor Christian McKay in the role. In terms of his acting and his voice, McKay is excellent--charismatic, powerful, and a showman through and through. But he is also 36 years old, and looks it; he comes across as a paterfamilias, not an arrogant youth just striking out on his own. Welles is supposed to be just 5 years older than Richard--think how much more complicated and interesting the movie would be if McKay and Efron seemed to be only 5 years apart in age!

Zac Efron annoyed me less than I thought he would, though his performance is nothing more than serviceable and I have no desire to see him in any role that is darker or more complicated than that of Richard Samuels. But Richard is a 1930s male ingenue, so the role suits Efron.

Claire Danes plays Sonja, the theater's secretary/production assistant. (I was tickled that Sonja is a Vassar alumna--no doubt one of Hallie Flanagan's protegees!) She's smart, efficient, and ambitious; and because being smart and efficient was not enough for a woman to get ahead in the 1930s, she's willing to sleep her way to the top. However, her character is confusingly written. It's unclear what the "top" is for her (is her goal to be an actress? a writer? a producer?) and it's also unclear why, if most of her sexual encounters are mercenary, she chooses to sleep with Richard. Sure, Richard's got chutzpah and a nice profile, but why would a pretty twenty-something woman go after this high-school kid? It feels like the screenwriters thought, "This is a coming-of-age story, so Richard needs to lose his virginity and have his heart broken," without considering why Sonja would acquiesce to this.

It seems that one of the assumptions behind Me and Orson Welles is that the 1930s were "a more innocent time" and that the people who go see this movie just want to be transported back to an era when the theater was "the thea-tuh," and bright-eyed teenage boys could luck into show business, and people sat around and talked about how sad it is that George Gershwin died. (This reference, and others, will go completely over the heads of any teenage Efron fangirls who go to see the movie--which is kind of a shame.) That's why the movie's main character is the bland and inoffensive Richard instead of the complex titan Orson Welles. That's why it neglects to explore things like the fallout of the Great Depression, or the implications of Welles' anti-fascist take on Caesar, or anything else that would be too gritty and depressing. But, see, why I love the 1930s is that it wasn't a more innocent time. It was passionate and scary and keyed-up, just as much as the 1960s were, just as much as our current era. And that's what's missing from Me and Orson Welles.

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