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Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo
Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow
Richard Samuels – Zac Efron
Sonja Jones – Claire Danes
Orson Welles – Christian McKay
Gretta Adle – Zoe Kazan
Joseph Cotten – James Tupper
Norman Lloyd – Leo Bill
John Houseman – Eddie Marsan
Christian McKay Rescues an Otherwise Weak Film
You can take Zac Efron out of Disney, but you can’t take Disney out of Zac Efron. In director Richard Linklater’s period piece Me and Orson Welles, the High School Musical actor tries to show he can break out of the Tiger Beat mold, but alas, this is not the project that will do it.
The pedigree of filmmaker Linklater, combined with the intrigue of a 1930s setting with legendary director Orson Welles in his pre-Hollywood days feels promising. However, it all goes out the window when in the first nine minutes of the film, Efron belts out a song on the New York City streets like he’s beginning another HSM number.
That’s not to say the audience should get up and walk away. Though Efron may be the Me in the film’s title, British actor Christian McKay as Welles is the focal point. Luckily, his performance carries the movie from beginning to end and makes it worth sitting through.
Based on the novel by Richard Kaplow, Welles stars Efron as Richard Samuels, a student and budding actor who gets swept up in the world of theater when he is cast in a small role in Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Caesar. Young and naïve, Richard tries hard to navigate through Welles’ tantrums, mind-games and mood-swings that range from charming to tyrannical.
Most of the film is your typical ‘cast-rehearsing-a-play’ story and showcases all the different characters that populate the theater including actors jockeying for stage time that Welles keeps deleting in an effort to showcase himself (he plays Brutus). There’s also the self-centered female lead (Kelly Reilly), the set designer (Al Weaver) and Welles’ plucky assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), the latter whom Efron falls for.
Obviously this can only spell disaster as Richard’s teenage heart is not equipped to handle a world where sleeping around for career reasons is practiced and accepted. Convinced he’s in love, Richard is in for a rude awakening which also leads to his downfall.
Holly Gent Palmo’s adapted screenplay weaves historical facts (yes, Welles did indeed put on this play at the Mercury Theater) with fiction (no, there never was a Richard Samuels). Additionally, Welles would have been 23 years old at the time he directed the play, yet McKay’s Welles looks at least 10 years older. McKay himself is 36.
Other than his age, McKay’s Welles is wonderful to watch. He is the heart and soul of this film and provides the gravitas to make the whole thing believable. By the time the movie is finished, you’re already craving a Welles biopic just so you can see how this legendary figure eventually makes his way to Hollywood where as we all know, he goes on to shoot the legendary feature Citizen Kane and marry actress Rita Hayworth among other feats.
Efron as Richard is not horrible. It’s just that his mannerisms are the same in every movie – and he’s done enough work now for it to be noticeable. Efron saunters around like he’s about to break into a dance number. He constantly flares his nostrils and you can see him suppressing the urge to act with his hands by thrusting them in his pant pockets – only to see them moving inside the material!
On top of that, Efron appears to always use the same five different facial expressions to convey emotion. Not because he’s genuinely feeling them as an actor would, but because the script says so. That may work in a Disney movie where the characters are meant to be easily labeled, but if Efron hopes to develop as an actor, he’s got to get more in touch with himself and his own capabilities.
It’s not like he doesn’t have it in him. Earlier this year Efron showed he possessed natural comedic chops in 17 Again, holding his own successfully against such comedic/improv talents as Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon.
Linklater has always been adept in working with newcomers and youngsters in films like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Fast Food Nation and the remake of Bad News Bears among others. Yet here he was not able to successfully take a commercial teen star like Efron and cross him over to an indie pic. Efron squeezes by using his charm and good looks, but as we all know, that can only take you so far.
[Above photo credit: Liam Daniel]