The question for director Richard Linklater and teen icon Zac Efron is this: Will the tweens and teens who made Efron a nascent superstar when they swooned over his turn as basketball hero turned thespian Troy Bolton in
High School Musical
follow him as he charts a new path in his career? The 20 year old actor is still in high school in Linklater’s
Me and Orson Welles, but as a Depression-era youth who crosses paths with a legend he is traipsing through territory light years away from today’s world of cliques, text messages and Facebook pages. Without the kids, the mannered but amusing dramedy’s box office fortunes look moderate, a magnet for mature filmgoers, especially that subset of the audience enthralled by showbiz lore and Welles’ larger-than-life persona. But if the young ones pursue their idol, returns could pick up substantially.
In 1937 New York, Efron is Richard Samuels, a theater-obsessed teen who dreams of someday acting on Broadway. His chance comes sooner than he could have ever anticipated when he stumbles upon 22 year old Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his Mercury Theatre Company. The actor/director/producer takes an immediate shine to the brash youth and casts him on the spot as Lucius in his upcoming production of Julius Caesar, opening one week hence.
What begins as a once in a lifetime opportunity for a kid who has not even started his career turns into an eye-opening, whirlwind education. Certainly, no high school drama teacher could have prepared Richard for an outsized personality like Welles, a capricious egoist who rides around in an ambulance so that he doesn’t have to worry about traffic delays and who regards the Mercury Theatre as a kind of fiefdom. Nor could Richard’s limited experience with high school girls prepare him for a woman like Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’ assistant, herself awaiting her big break, but in the meantime only too willing to encourage a school boy’s crush.
Fellow actors Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) take Richard under their wing during a week in which the entire production seems on the verge of spinning out of control, despite the best efforts of Welles’ partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), to keep it on track. But Lloyd’s and especially Cotton’s counsel can only go so far. Richard quickly bonds with the company, only to discover that the theatrical fraternity he has long imagined is not exactly what it seems and never could be with the unpredictable Welles at the helm.
Efron and the rest of the large ensemble are all excellent, but this adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel lives or dies by its Welles. Linklater chose well in casting British newcomer McKay, and not just because the actor is a dead ringer for—if a good decade older than—the young Welles. More vital to the character than the physical resemblance is the way McKay captures the spirit of the man, his enormous charm, intelligence and zest and also his arrogance, pettiness and volatility. A Who’s Who of great actors have previously played Welles on the screen, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston and Angus MacFadyen, but McKay’s powerful, charismatic performance may be the best yet.
Linklater, who shot most of the film in the U.K., does not attempt to create a realistic portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s. Instead, he adopts a heightened theatricality, which works both for and against the movie. On the plus side, the style emphasizes the wit of Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.’s screenplay as the actors toss the funny, sparkling dialogue back and forth with deadpan aplomb. But the artificiality also underlines the story’s superficiality.
Me and Orson Welles
is certainly a buoyant diversion, but also lighter than air and ultimately forgettable. It is pleasant enough and will provide an education to any of Efron’s young fans who do turn up, but McKay’s stellar turn deserves something much more substantial than this trifling bonbon.
Cast: Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, James Tupper, Leo Bill and Eddie Marsan
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Holly Gent Palmo, Robert Kaplow and Vincent Palmo Jr.
Producers: Richard Linklater, Ann Carli and Marc Samuelson
Rating: PG-13 for sexual references and smoking.
Running time: 107 min.
Release date: November 25 NY/LA, December 4 ltd., December 11 Expansion