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From the DVD Shelf: Me and Orson Welles (2009)

In Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) somehow finds himself cast in a small role in Orson Welles (Christian McKay)’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre.  As the brash, brilliant, egocentric Welles struggles to realize his vision for the production, Richard enters a master class in theatre and life as he struggles to hold his own in the production while also finding himself attracted to Mr. Welles’ pretty, driven young assistant Sonja (Claire Danes).

Whenever Me and Orson Welles focuses on Mr. Welles, and his efforts to mount his production called Caesar, the film soars.  Christian McKay is wonderful as Welles.  He commands the screen whenever he is on it, just as the real Orson Welles did.  As Welles, Mr. McKay is dynamic, funny, and outrageous — an oversized personality, bursting at the seams with brilliance and ego.  There’s an element of caricature in the performance, but it never falls over into silly parody.  Mr. McKay shows us the beating, human heart of the man — his failings, and his burning desire to succeed in his endeavors despite all the obstacles in his way.  It’s an incredible performance, and I hope that Mr. McKay goes on to have a long, successful career.

I was fascinated by the film’s glimpses into Welles’ production: the way he turned constraints into creative devices (choosing to set the film in modern day because he didn’t have money for costumes), and I thrilled to the glimpses we were given into the staging of certain scenes and Mr. Welles and his actors’ debates as to how to bring certain moments from the play to life (such as the death or the poet Cinna).  He ensemble of actors in the film who portray Welles’ ensemble at the Mercury Theatre are very strong (James Tupper, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill, and more) and could each almost be the lead of their own film.

Unfortunately, where the film falls flat is in the story of the main character, Richard, played by Zac Efron.  While I’m certainly not a fan of Mr. Efron’s (I’ve never seen High School Musical or any of his work), I not a hater, either.  I was eager to see what this young actor/musician could do in this serious role.  Sadly, he’s just terrible.  Mr. Efron plays his scenes with an arrogant smirk that caused me to have an immediate, visceral dislike for his character.  Throughout the film, it’s impossible to tell when Richard is being genuine or when he’s just spinning lies to get the girl or to get a job.  (When Richard first meets Orson Welles, he clearly lies through his teeth in order to get hired by Mr. Welles.  I suppose we’re supposed to be impressed by the kid’s can-do brashness.  But then, later, there’s a moment when Sonja asks Richard what sorts of things he likes.  He starts talking about movies and music and stories, and I had absolutely no idea if we were supposed to think Richard was again telling someone what he thought they’d want to hear, or if it was supposed to be a real moment of him sharing something about himself.  That is a total failure on the part of the film.)

Mr. Efron is not helped by the script.  Adapted from Robert Kaplow’s novel, the story is sharp and engaging when dealing with Mr. Welles, but totally flat when dealing with the actual main character, Richard.  From my plot description in the first paragraph of this review, you might imagine this film to be a classic coming-of-age story, and indeed, that’s what I expected.  But Richard has absolutely no arc in the film.  He learns nothing, and seems to be exactly the same superficial character in the final scene as he was at the very beginning.

Let’s look at that final scene, as I think it illuminates my problems with the film as a whole.  (Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the whole movie for you, though trust me when I say the film’s story unfolds exactly as you’d expect.)  Richard finds himself once more crossing paths with a sweet young girl, a burgeoning writer, who he met when he first arrived in New York.  He helped her get a story published (which could be seen as his being kind, or rather as just a way to get her to like him — and since I dislike the character so much I tended to think the latter, though I suspect we were supposed to believe the former) and she’s excited by the news, and then she remembers to ask him about his role in Mr. Welles’ play.  At which point Richard totally lies to her, and pretends all is well.  Then they walk off smiling, together, into the distance.  The end.  I thought for sure, here, at the end of the movie, we’d see Richard actually be human for a moment and reveal that, while he’s had some extraordinary opportunities and experiences, his life isn’t all perfect.  But, no, he lies, and that’s the end.  It’s a really weird, off-putting way to end the film, and further cemented my dislike for Mr. Efron’s character.

Maybe I’m being unkind, but I found Richard to be pretty much a superficial prick from start to finish.  He stumbles, seemingly with no effort whatsoever, into a role in an Orson Welles theatre production in New York city.  But we never see Richard acknowledge, even for a moment, what an incredible, amazing opportunity that is.  Later in the film, when things start to go wrong for him, he reacts with outrage, as if OF COURSE he deserves a place in Mr. Welles’ production when, in fact, he has demonstrated no such thing up to that point in the film.  (He’s constantly fumbling his few lines, he can’t play the mandolin like he said he could, etc.)  At no point did I feel Richard behaves the way a likable, normal young man would in his situation.  Now, I have no problem with a film being based around an unlikable central character.  Some PHENOMENAL films make that choice.  But I don’t think that was at all the intention of the filmmakers here.

So, for the Orson Welles side of the story, Me and Orson Welles is terrific.  (Albeit slightly familiar, as this story of Orson Welles’ struggles to mount a play in 1937’s New York covers similar ground as RKO 281, which depicted Orson Welles’ struggles to make Citizen Kane, and The Cradle Will Rock, which depicts Orson Welles’ struggles to mount a play in 1937’s New York.)  Unfortunately, the Zac Efron half of the story falls flat.  The film isn’t terrible — and, as I wrote above, Christian McKay’s performance as Orson Welles is eminently watchable — but it was disappointingly flawed.

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