At any large film festival, it's easy to get caught up in the buzz and the biz of it - most of the time, the press screenings are really press and industry screenings, which means that the person sitting next to you is not some fellow ink-stained wretch who will watch the film and have to write a review but, rather, an acquisitions person who will watch the film and, perhaps, write a check. This doesn't just lead to seat-hopping and movie-jumping as the acquisitions people shrug No, not for us and leave so they can continue their quest; it also leads to getting caught up in an atmosphere where questions of commerce can come more readily to mind than questions of art.
So it was with the Toronto screening of Me and Orson Welles, where my feeling warmed and charmed by Richard Linklater's recreation of 1930's literary New York came on the heels of a much more pointed question -- namely, who the hell is going to see it? Starring Zac Efron as a young would-be actor who's recruited for a bit part in Orson Welles' 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, the film skews young in energy and execution, but unless teens are lured into caring about old-timey theater by Efron's name, it's unlikely they'll go; older audience members, who have the advantage of actually knowing, and caring, who Orson Welles is might be put off by the presence of Mr. Efron, who they know solely from their childrens' repeated viewing of High School Musical.
Therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say -- because Me and Orson Welles is actually a nicely-made, warmly-shaped story of life upon the wicked stage, as Efron's untested actor (when asked what theater he's done, Efron's Richard Samuels shrugs: "Mostly shows at school." Ha, ha ...) gets a bit part in a big show run by a big man, Orson Welles (played by Christian McKay, who's played Welles on-stage before). Welles is a bully, but a brilliant one; as his right-hand woman Sonja ("with a 'j" ...") Miles (Clare Danes) notes, "... In the hope of working with him, you forgive a lot of behavior." She should talk.
Linklater's managed to craft a believable world with minimal resources; lots of action takes place in he theater, but we do get several scenes in a lovingly recreated '30s Manhattan. As Richard climbs on board the vehicle of Welles' will only to be later thrown under the bus, he gets a quick, cruel course in why exactly there's no business like show business. Holly Gent Palmo adapts Robert Kaplow's novel for the screen, as Richard begins a romance with Sonja and watches Welles pull brilliant theater seemingly out of thin air. Welles is a brilliant artist, a top-notch bastard and a world-class skirt-chaser; if the 35-year-old McKay seems a little unbelievably baby faced, remember that at the time Welles was 22. (In another age, the 22-year old Welles would have put together a band and put a single out on Matador; in the '30s, he started a theater troupe. Same spirit, different times.) McKay's part seems a little broad and big until you realize just how well it reflects the way the real Welles was playing a part; several shots and lines of dialogue echo moments that would come later in Welles' life, but again, the movie going 15-24 demographic is not waiting expectantly to decide which film they should go to on the weekend based on the question of which film has the most, or best, references to The Third Man.
Efron's a perfectly charming leading man, even if he looks disconcertingly handsome; another actor may have been better, but you can't help but shake the feeling that Efron was cast not solely for his in the role in the film, but also for his role in the pre-production balance sheet. Danes is fine as a plucky striver with a heart of lead, while Linklater gets the tone of a behind-the-scenes comedy drama just right, the flurry of activity on-stage and the "noises off," the parts played when the lights are up and the roles played when the theater is empty. Welles commiserates with Richard late in the film: "If people can't find you, they can't dislike you." From almost any other film maker, you'd know what to expect, but Linklater's films (Slacker, Fast Food Nation, Dazed and Confused) have always understood that life is random - which is another way of saying life is not fair -- and he side-steps the easy sentiment another director would have tacked onto the film. Me and Orson Welles won't find a mass audience, but the audience that does will find it has a lot to recommend it.