Why Me?

11/25/2009 4:00 AM |

Me and Orson Welles

Directed by Richard Linklater

The problem is there in the title. Anyone who cares about 20th-century American theater and cinema would welcome a film about Welles, but who’s this “me” to whom we’re supposed to pay equal attention? A dull seventeen-year-old drama geek named Richard Samuels? Played by Zac Efron?!

This being a film by Richard Linklater, it’s only appropriate we view the genius director of the nascent Mercury Theatre from the eyes of a passionate young ‘un. But Welles himself was only 22 in 1937, making it all the more frustrating that screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel) steer away from the make-or-break backstage drama of the Mercury’s anti-fascist re-imagining of Julius Caesar to focus on Richard’s stilted coming-of-age tale. Richard worships Welles and learns harsh romantic lessons via the great man’s opportunistic mistress (Claire Danes)—yet with every close-up of the brutally uncharismatic Efron we see not the outsized emotions of a naive teenager willing to do anything for art and love, but a Tiger Beat cover with a Depression-era hairstyle.

Yet whenever British actor Christian McKay commands the screen as Welles, Linklater’s film comes alive. Employing a perfect physical and vocal imitation, McKay evokes the arrogant, manipulative, intimidating, yet undoubtedly brilliant Welles, never better than in a scene where the cigar-smoking, baby-faced actor glides into a radio studio, uses a sleight-of-hand trick to flirt with a secretary, and then improvs a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons into his script. Cut out the “Me and” and Linklater’s entire film could have been this magical.

Opens November 25