Containing Welles

Containing Welles

Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air and Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces.


The story of an omelet told from an eggshell’s point of view, Me and Orson Welles relates the events of one week in November 1937, when a fictional high school student named Richard happens upon some actors goofing off on New York’s Forty-first Street and gets cast in a show that just might open: the Mercury Theatre’s soon-to-be-legendary Caesar. A day-tripping kid from the suburbs will accidentally participate in greatness. As the Mercury’s office manager and all-purpose sweetheart puts it, he will get to sit at the feet of Orson Welles and be showered with his spittle.

As swift and stripped-down as its title, the Caesar into which Richard has wandered will thrillingly transform Shakespeare’s Roman general into a present-day dictator in jackboots and black shirt, provided the director and star ever lets the play get out of rehearsals. Welles is a dictator too, you see, though without any ideal of military discipline, and evidently can’t bear to set an opening date, because then the chaos would end and he could no longer go on bullying and seducing and making everyone in the company wait on his every whim. “Can you play the ukulele?” Welles demands of Richard upon seeing him on the sidewalk, as if it were the first question that would pop into anyone’s mind. Without asking why, Richard looks Welles in the eye, lies and says yes. Welles stares back, recognizes the lie and hires him anyway, telling him he’s now Lucius. It seems the dictator has found a new underling, one with just enough spirit to make him temporarily interesting to break.

But I’m making Me and Orson Welles sound grim and scolding, when in fact it’s merely a little melancholy around the edges. Directed by Richard Linklater as one of his bustling, large-ensemble excursions into misbehavior–think of Dazed and Confused or School of Rock, but with a period setting and blank verse–the film is if anything a product of infatuation: with the limitlessness of Welles, the boisterous self-involvement of acting companies and (above all) the perpetual astonishment of young people at finding themselves where they are.

Welles was one of these young people, or should have been. Though already famous in New York theater circles by 1937, and furiously busy as one of America’s most successful radio actors, he was 22 when he founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman and staged Caesar–making him all of five years older than the Richard he addresses as “Junior” throughout the film. The one serious objection I can make to Me and Orson Welles is that Christian McKay’s uncanny reincarnation of Welles the Boy Genius–“impersonation” would be too weak a word–has too little of the boy in it. You get Welles the self-propelling volcano, rumbling in every decibel range, swiveling his girth from side to side and occasionally letting forth actual flames (just one of his magic tricks)–the Welles, that is, who had to be propitiated, as various members of the acting company keep telling Richard. You also get Welles the mischief-maker, of course, who enlivens Linklater’s film by zooming around New York in a rented ambulance, or habitually striding into radio studios mere seconds before air time. (It’s all true.) But this side of Welles’s character seems almost a condescension in the movie. You don’t get a sense that this grand figure really was, chronologically, within tantalizing reach of a high school kid.

Maybe Caesar‘s triumph could have seemed less of a foregone conclusion in the film, and therefore even more exciting, had Welles’s eruptions before the company included the overtone of a tantrum, to hint that he, too, was young enough to be staggered by his own life. And maybe the film’s theme of the vast, cruel difference between two classes of people–those who love the arts and those who are geniuses in them–could have been a little more bittersweet, had Richard ever calculated the gap between himself and Welles and imagined he might catch up.

As it is, though, the character Richard dreams he can catch is the Mercury Theatre’s office girl, Sonja. She, too, is only a few years older and seems, miraculously, to be attainable. The likelihood that she’s not will occur to you long before it does to Richard, looming as one of a few too many predictabilities in the screenplay. (It’s written by longtime Linklater collaborators Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo Jr., based on a novel of the same title by Robert Kaplow.) But if surprise and suspense are in short supply here, Me and Orson Welles nevertheless gives you an abundance of a far more valuable movie asset–charm–in the persons of its Sonja and Richard.

She is played by Claire Danes, whose smile is self-confidently turned up to full wattage for the role and then given an extra glow by a master of gemlike color, cinematographer Dick Pope, who offers her the most loving photography of her career. Danes glides through her scenes with the air of a woman who is used to such adoration (both from the characters around her and the audience in the movie house) and accepts it with relaxed amusement. Her critical moment comes when she drops the smile, revealing a disillusioned calculation in Sonja that is as close as Me and Orson Welles comes to evoking the desperation that was everywhere in 1937.

As for Richard, he’s played by the ultimate heartthrob of preteen America, Zac Efron. Made famous in the High School Musical cycle as the slimmest, shortest and most sexless boy ever to pose as a teenage basketball star–his Disneyfied prettiness disrupted only by the weight of his eyebrows, his delivery of pop-song product uncomplicated by any urge toward musical self-expression–Efron might seem at first glance to have been a fatal choice to carry Me and Orson Welles. But Linklater has proved that what used to be true of Bing Crosby (in the words of his most successful director, Leo McCarey) is also true of Efron: he can do no wrong in front of a camera. To play Richard, Efron must swagger, but in a guileless, shrugging way; mope, but without ever losing his buoyancy; deceive others and be deceived, but in either case keep the audience on his side. When I think of the demands of the role, it now seems to me that anyone other than Efron would have been fatal–and that’s without taking into account the need to stand up against Christian McKay’s overwhelm-
ing performance, which seems as much a force of nature as was Welles himself.

I count it to the credit of Me and Orson Welles that the film does not emulate the gargantuan qualities of its title character but is content to contain them. There’s something pleasingly modest about the production, from its sleight-of-hand re-creation of 1930s Manhattan (on sets in London and the Isle of Man) to its fleet but unapologetically sketchy reconstruction of what the Mercury’s Caesar might have been. The tone of the picture tempts me to say that Linklater has chosen to identify not with Welles–despite his being the godfather of American independent filmmakers–but with the unformed, ultimately unambitious Richard. Yet this seems wrong. It slights another character in the story, who just might be the secret heroine.

She is Gretta (Zoe Kazan), a would-be writer of Richard’s own age, who smiles as much as Sonja but is openly sad, and labors steadily for her own portion of greatness but doesn’t dare to believe she’ll get it. Her brief, seemingly random encounters with Richard frame Me and Orson Welles, which after all the uproar of the Mercury Theatre comes back in the end to her and her wry, unassuming talent. I think the film, in its heart, is a tribute to Gretta’s kind of artist; and she returns the compliment.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea, she asks Richard, to write about two people meeting the way we just did? The story wouldn’t need to have action; it could simply be a moment, like this. Evidently, Gretta is the kind of person who might enjoy Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

But she might like Me and Orson Welles, too, despite all the hullabaloo.

November brought us George Clooney’s voice in the best American film of 2009, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox–the most droll, inventive and visually delightful of the year’s movies, the one with the quickest wit and furriest puppets, the only one to make you proud of your place in the vast Darwinian diversity (and appropriately humble about it, too). November also brought us George Clooney as an ensemble character actor in the self-produced, almost-based-on-a-true-story movie The Men Who Stare at Goats–not entirely terrific, maybe, but one of the few films this year to have anything to say about the Iraq War, and the only one to do it while exploring the alliance in American culture between moonstruck meliorism and deadly force.

And then, before the year could come to an end, George Clooney was back again, this time in full movie-star mode. Given this tripling up, the first thing to be said about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is that it proves there’s depth and variety in Clooney’s persona as the cocksure guy with an edge of desperation. He hasn’t yet worn out his welcome. And the second thing to be said is that Clooney hasn’t worn out his social conscience, either. For his biggest role of the year, he chose to play a ghastly species of management consultant: the kind who flies around the country to foreclosed office buildings to tell employees their jobs no longer exist.

Based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air starts with portraits of the disappearing American workforce but then resolves into the story of the consultant’s relationships with two women: his sexual transactions (coldblooded at first, and always on the go) with a fellow citizen of first-class cabins and airport hotels (Vera Farmiga); and his struggles with a fellow worker, a bright-eyed kid just out of college (Anna Kendrick), who is threatening to ground him by changing the way his company does business. Economic misery becomes a pervasive background hum. The foreground is taken up by an increasingly thoughtful Clooney, a persistently irritating Kendrick (not her fault–she’s just doing what she’s been told) and Farmiga, whose innate warmth turns out to be the fuel for the whole movie.

Up in the Air makes much of being set in generic, transitional spaces, but it’s hardly the first film to be located in the Great Nondescript. (The list encompasses everything from Planes, Trains and Automobiles to About Schmidt.) It also sells itself as a serious comedy–meaning that Reitman keeps trying to poke his elbow in your ribs, and sometimes hits your eye instead. To me, it’s the least interesting of Clooney’s three current films. But it is also the most urgent: a latter-day piece of Capracorn for the present American Depression.

Only a true master could have created the labyrinth of dramatic motifs, guilty secrets and film historical allusions that is Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces–a mirrored labyrinth at that, where every element of the movie is reflected back on itself. At the center of this maze is the figure of a beautiful but hopeless woman (Penélope Cruz) who is remade by two competing men–a violently possessive tycoon (José Luis Gómez) and a brilliant filmmaker (Lluís Homar)–and so is destroyed by them. The story of this catastrophe, confessed in grief by the filmmaker (who has lived for years with its physical and emotional consequences), could easily have been as compelling as Bad Education, or Talk to Her. But even though Broken Embraces overflows with cinematic riches scene by scene, it doesn’t deepen and gather momentum like the best of Almodóvar’s work–perhaps because it’s so bent on redeeming and celebrating the character of the filmmaker that it loses touch with its suffering heroine. I recommend it anyway; to be disappointed by Almodóvar is better than being satisfied by almost anyone else. But I worry, too. He’s become so aware of being a great filmmaker that I fear he might forget to be a good one.

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