Me and Orson Welles (Freestyle Releasing, PG-13)

film_orson.jpgLacking an interesting story to tell, the film falls back on that favorite of lazy writers everywhere: namedropping.

 

 

 

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Me and Orson Welles is worth seeing, but only just. It’s a prime example of a movie which fails to live up to its intriguing premise but contains one great performance which compensates for its many other irritating features.

The performer who carries the day is Christian McKay, a British actor who honed his portrayal of Orson Welles while touring with the one man stage show Rosebud. The resemblance is uncanny: Not only does McKay look like Welles, he captures the attitude and ego of the man as well and the film is never dull when he’s on camera.

Unfortunately, Me and Orson Welles is built around the story of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, demonstrating his continuing inability to do anything more than pose and look cute) who lucks into a small part in the Mercury Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar. In the magical way of Hollywood wish fulfillment movies, Samuels convinces his mother that high school is unimportant, masters not only his lines but the art of the ukulele as well, gets it on with the company’s attractive secretary (Claire Danes, who is quite good in a limited role), experiences the euphoria of performing in a widely acclaimed theater production, and even has a cutie-pie girlfriend (Zoe Kazan, Elia’s granddaughter) in reserve which gives him something to fall back on when his Mercury adventure crashes to earth.

Director Richard Linklater seems unsure about what he wants to accomplish with this film and the script, adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. from a novel by Robert Kaplow, doesn’t do him any favors. It never settles on a consistent tone, requiring too many leaps of faith to convince as naturalistic drama while remaining insufficiently captivating to succeed as magical realism. There’s nothing interesting about Efron’s character which means that a film built around him can’t hold our attention for long, with the possible exception of a certain audience demographic who still thinks he’s dreamy.

Lacking an interesting story to tell, the film falls back on that favorite of lazy writers everywhere: namedropping. It’s a good strategy, because a certain percentage of the audience for this type of film will be so busy congratulating themselves on recognizing the names of people like John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotton (James Tupper, who looks uncannily like the actor and succeeds the best in bringing his role to life) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) that they won’t care that little is done to develop these historical figures as characters within the film.

Another appeal of Me and Orson Welles is that it is structured around a significant historical event: the 1937 Mercury production of Julius Caesar which portrayed the plotters as blackshirted Fascists, a particularly resonant choice given the contemporary situation in Europe. There’s some fun as well for lovers of that old warhorse the backstage drama, although you have to overlook the script’s propensity to rely on stock conflicts and reduce all its characters to types.

Me and Orson Welles was shot primarily on the Isle of Man and at Pinewood Studios, and the film exudes an oddly sumptuous yet synthetic feel rather than convincing us that it’s taking place in a gritty New York of 1937. So not only does the story not ring true, the film doesn’t even look real. Me and Orson Welles is a disappointing take on a fascinating premise which is leavened by one overpowering performance and a few ancillary pleasures. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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