[Regular reader Michael Sloan, known around these parts as simply ‘rot’ is also making the TIFF rounds and he has offered to share with the world his take on a few films.]
During the Q&A of his film Tape, Richard Linklater remarked that it took a lot for a story to grab him and that when mining literary material for cinematic possibilities he was particularly selective, looking for that new voice to make the filmmaking exercise worth doing. It was 2001, and he had just finished Tape and Waking Life, two unique projects that held firm to this principle. Had you asked me then of whom did I consider to be the five greatest directors still working, his name would have certainly come up. But something has changed, in me perhaps, but I feel it also in his more recent work, this palpable shift in principle, with certain projects that he has chosen clearly suggesting a disinterest in the ‘new voice’ he so fondly spoke of before. Films like Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, even School of Rock, and now added to the list, Me and Orson Welles.
What I find so contemptible about such a film as Me and Orson Welles is not that it is a bad film but rather that it is so middling in its efforts, so willing to be conventional in every way and let a consistent state of déjà-vu infect the presiding of yet another backstage thespian story. Even more contemptible because it is Richard Linklater at the helm, someone fresh off of A Scanner Darkly, someone whose talents need not be wasted.
Visually and performance-wise there is a lot to enjoy about this recreation of a period in Orson Welles career when he helmed a lauded production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury theater in New York. Here we have a Welles prior to his many successes as a movie star and director, yet still admired for his radio and theater work, a colossus of talent around which everyone encircled, patiently waiting for him
to begin. The main occupation of the Mercury theater is to wait for Orson, and as the production teeters on the edge of collapse, we watch an artist in his element take from the chaos that which makes greatness in art. We watch from a particular point of view, that of a budding thespian, Richard Samuels, who spends his time learning about the theory of the world in high school only to have it materialize at the Mercury. The film is intended to be a love letter to actors, and an affectionate look at a time and place when the business and the world around it felt bursting with possibilities, everything tinged in nostalgia (unfortunately never going for more than soft light admiration).
While full of some nice comedic bits at the expense of a sometimes cartoony impression of a brutish dictator in Welles, the ambition of recreating a sense of the world behind the play felt incomplete, relying too much on archetype characters doing archetype things and lacking any of richness of detail that something like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy was in abundance of. Everything felt conveniently laid out, and the love story was completely telegraphed from the very first scene, and in this respect of relying so heavily on conventions I feel disappointed with this latest effort.
But really I can sort of understand why it was done, and anybody who sees this film will within the first ten minutes come to the same realization: Christian McKay IS Orson Welles. Now I know we have all seen our share of imitations, Cate Blanchet as Katherine Hepburn, Jamie Fox as Ray Charles, but let me say definitively, and once again, Christian McKay IS Orson Welles. He does not just nail the voice, he without any prosthetic nose or such looks like a dead ringer of him! How do you find someone who looks like the man, sounds like the man, and on top of it all can genuinely act? Christian McKay is a miracle, an oddity, a freak show that one delights in with ever second he is onscreen. It seems fitting that for a story about the craft of acting that the one great achievement of the film is the meta-admiration of a real actor doing otherworldly things. There can me no doubt that no matter how inoffensively average this film is, Christian McKay will be nominated at next years Academy Awards and likely win.