Friday, December 11, 2009

“Me and Orson Welles” isn’t quite a coming-of-age movie, and it’s not quite an examination of the early, pre-cinema work of Orson Welles. Instead, it’s an odd melange of the two that is intermittently entertaining but never quite comes together in a satisfying way.

Teen heartthrob Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels, a high school student with dreams of stardom in the footlights of a New York City theater. Skipping school one day to try his luck in the Big Apple, Richard falls in with the Mercury Theatre troupe, which is planning a big production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

The Mercury Theatre, of course, was headed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the wunderkind of the prewar American entertainment scene. Already a star of radio and theater, Welles was still four years away from the premiere of his most famous, most lasting work: “Citizen Kane.”

Taking a shine to Richard after the boy outrageously boasts he can play the ukulele, Welles gives him a small part in the play and takes the young man under his wing. While at the theater, Richard runs into the bright lights of early cinema, including John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper).

He also runs into love, in the person of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a fair-haired beauty who ignores the more famous cast members in favor of Richard. The young man is infatuated with the lovely young lass, but she seems to have her own agenda.

The standout performance here comes from Mr. McKay, whose hammy Welles is incredibly true to life: He jumps off the screen as no one else in the film quite does. It helps, of course, that he’s playing such a larger-than-life figure.

Mr. Efron, meanwhile, doesn’t stray too far from the archetype that has served him so well in “High School Musical” and “17 Again.” He’s likable and cute and doesn’t botch the few moments of emotional heavy lifting the paltry script throws his way. Miss Danes manages to be convincing as a world-weary temptress despite her eternally youthful looks.

There’s an interesting — possibly even great — film to be made about Orson Welles’ early work, as biographies by David Thomson (“Rosebud”) and Simon Callow (“The Road to Xanadu”) have revealed. It might even be a good idea to frame the movie as director Richard Linklater has, through the eyes of an outsider who catches glimpses of the auteur’s petty jealousies and undeniable brilliance.

Unfortunately, “Me and Orson Welles” isn’t that film. Something fails to click into place: Both the love story and the story of the production of “Julius Caesar” feel a little rushed — and neither feels entirely believable.


TITLE: “Me and Orson Welles”

RATING: PG-13 (sexual references and smoking)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Linklater, written by Holly Gent Palmo

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes



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