Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater
The problem is there in the title. Anyone who cares about 20th-century American theater and cinema would welcome a film about Welles, but who’s this “me” to whom we’re supposed to pay equal attention? A dull seventeen-year-old drama geek named Richard Samuels? Played by Zac Efron?!
This being a film by Richard Linklater, it’s only appropriate we view the genius director of the nascent Mercury Theatre from the eyes of a passionate young ‘un. But Welles himself was only 22 in 1937, making it all the more frustrating that screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel) steer away from the make-or-break backstage drama of the Mercury’s anti-fascist re-imagining of Julius Caesar to focus on Richard’s stilted coming-of-age tale. Richard worships Welles and learns harsh romantic lessons via the great man’s opportunistic mistress (Claire Danes)—yet with every close-up of the brutally uncharismatic Efron we see not the outsized emotions of a naive teenager willing to do anything for art and love, but a Tiger Beat cover with a Depression-era hairstyle.
Yet whenever British actor Christian McKay commands the screen as Welles, Linklater’s film comes alive. Employing a perfect physical and vocal imitation, McKay evokes the arrogant, manipulative, intimidating, yet undoubtedly brilliant Welles, never better than in a scene where the cigar-smoking, baby-faced actor glides into a radio studio, uses a sleight-of-hand trick to flirt with a secretary, and then improvs a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into his script. Cut out the “Me and” and Linklater’s entire film could have been this magical.
Opens November 25
By Philip Roth
Coming from this country’s most renowned, prolific novelist, the first lines of The Humbling suggest a vulnerable confession of artistic depletion and failure. He’d lost his magic. “The impulse was spent,” writes Roth about his latest aged protagonist, Simon Axler, a legendary thespian cut down by a sudden, unexplained self-conscious inability to perform on stage. Estranged from his expressive outlet and career, Axler loses his wife, contemplates suicide, checks into a psych ward and reemerges a shell of his former self, isolated in his upstate New York farm—the embodiment of the creative personality brought devastatingly low.
With his recent work becoming increasingly shorter and bleak, can The Humbling be read as 76-year-old Roth’s defeated elegy for his own inventive powers? An upcoming fifth book in as many years would make that seem doubtful, but unlike previous stumped-genius exorcisms like My Life as a Man and The Anatomy Lesson, The Humbling contains no humor, no playful metafiction, nothing that might bolster its author-surrogate through another round of adventures. Only one act of defiance remains: erotic abandon. In typical Rothian fashion, Axler finds a possible restoration of his health, sanity and vocation in an unlikely affair with one Pegeen Mike, a lesbian named after the impetuous barmaid of The Playboy of the Western World.
While the first third of The Humbling exactingly traces the debilitating frustration of an artistic cul-de-sac, the sexual obsession and dependency of the remaining “counterplot” is less convincing. Exploring the ill-fitting roles people play to escape their hollow lives, Roth merely sketches a fragile male psyche without digging to its core, instead relying on blunt symbols of castration anxiety—Pegeen dons a strap-on during their bedroom sessions, possessing the phallus Axler never recovers. Despite his reliably unpretentious and commanding prose, Roth has done this sort of thing better before (The Counterlife, The Dying Animal), and if this most penetrating of authors is going to do it again, he needs to go deeper.
Western-friendly director Zhang Yimou’s latest, following on the heels of the critically and financially heralded House of Flying Daggers and Hero, would make for a terrific lesson on how not to carefully control and shape the tone of a film. Structured as a redemptive quest in which Gou-ichi Takata (a servicably stoical Ken Takakura) tries to repair the broken relationship with his estranged, dying son by seeking out a legendary actor to perform the Chinese folk operas the unforgiving offspring so loves, Riding Alone compares unfavorably, when held up to the light of emotional truthfulness, to a close cousin like David Lynch’s career-anomalous The Straight Story. The latter finds a delicate working balance between genre conventions and a subtle, mournful melancholy of aging and regret that transcends manipulative catharsis; Riding Alone never achieves the same, sincere as its intentions and feelings are. Too many false cues push the film from modest to maudlin — an overbearing orchestral score, Takata’s needless, redundant voiceover observations, the legendary actor’s own unintentionally estranged son, a painfully adorable child who forms a bond with Takata — just when restraint is most necessary. Yimou’s sincerity can’t be denied, but it also shouldn’t shame an audience against rejecting this calculated appeal to tears.
Opens September 1 at Quad Cinema