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A larger-than-life figure is also relegated to the sidelines in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, an adaptation of a fact-based novel that tells the story of a teenage actor who bluffs his way onto Broadway. Here, though, Welles’ part is more well-rounded and satisfyingly meaty than Mandela’s, and newcomer Christian McKay embodies the famed director so seamlessly it’s enough to recommend this otherwise inoffensively lackluster film.
McKay’s performance has been rightfully stealing the thunder from the movie’s main ballyhoo, which is the High School Musical–groomed Zac Efron’s first foray into drama. Efron plays Richard, a New Jersey 17-year-old with aspirations of becoming an actor. When he’s walking around Manhattan one day, the cast and crew of Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar spills out onto the sidewalk, and Richard inadvertently schmoozes his way into a bit part as Lucius. A bit wide-eyed—and just naive enough to ignore the repercussions of challenging the blustery Orson—Richard spends the next week getting a crash-course in acting, ass-kissing, and, of course, love, the latter with the troupe’s older and more worldly secretary, Sonja (Claire Danes).
Me and Orson Welles, the debut script of husband-and-wife team Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., was actually in the can last year, and the delayed release allowed audiences their first taste of a post-HSM Efron in the comedy 17 Again. (His supporting part in 2007’s Hairspray, another musical, hardly counts.) This film suggests that the young hottie is better suited to song and dance: Efron’s Richard is bland and personality-free, and not even his looks are enough to sell the character. In an early scene, Richard describes himself as “sort of an actor”; by the end of the film, one can’t disagree.
Little else in the story, which focuses on the cast’s rehearsal, is all that compelling, either, no matter how its ’30s New York glows or how much cheery ragtime plays. But there is McKay: Uncanny resemblance aside, he’s a delightful force as Welles, delivering a convincing portrayal of a man completely self-absorbed who could yell at and insult his crew but still be adored. (A great line: “I am Orson Welles! And every single person standing in this theater is an adjunct to my vision!”) But what is so evident in this character is lacking in the film overall—in a word, “possibilities.” Even though the story is seen through the perspective of a fledgling, you never sense the thrill of that first foot in the door. And so Me and Orson Welles effectively drops the first part of its title, and in turn the whole point of its existence.