British thespian Christian McKay is charismatic, enigmatic and pitch perfect in his portrayal of legendary theatre and film director, Orson Welles. He is all thick, creamy charm and wonderfully, audaciously, self-confident. You want to be in his presence, to be caught up in the excitement of pulling off a daring production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar against all the odds. McKay's Welles convinces us that art matters, and that excellence is possible, and that if the artist wants to charm a little radio secretary or two in the meantime, well, who is he to be pinned down by conventional bourgeois morality? All hail, the brilliant wunderkind Orson Welles, and woe betide you if you dare to question his ducal rights.
The tragedy of ME AND ORSON WELLES is that Richard Linklater has not fashioned a framing device interesting enough to hold our attention when Welles is off screen. Indeed, Welles must be turning in his grave to see his grand personality reduced to romantic-comedy fodder. For, in this ill-advised film, we are asked to see Welles through the eyes of a naive, romantic schoolboy (Zac Efron with his first decent haircut), who gets a bit-part in Welles' production. For much of the movie's runtime, the schoolkid follows Welles around, filching his best pick-up lines and moving in on his PA (Claire Danes) only to get ideas above himself and mess it all up. We are supposed to care about this young kid losing his illusions about what it takes to get ahead, and worse still, to care about his romance with a drippy wannabe writer (Zoe Kazan) with eyes so wide she could be a Disney heroine.
All of this is so much nonsense. What we really care about is Welles and his genius and his relationship with long-time collaborators - his producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and his best friend, Joe Cotton. The movie sags when Welles is off-screen. Frankly, I would've put up with just seeing him schmooze chicks, but what would've been superb would've been a portrayal of how he worked. Sadly, other than one seen where he discusses The Magnificent Ambersons, we get precious little of that.
The resulting film is too frail a frame upon which to hang a biopic of such a great man. It is likely to disappoint all potential audiences. The HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL crowd will no doubt be annoyed to see their pet outshone by an older, less handsome man, and the cineastes will be teased but not satiated by McKay's performance. Little scene gems - a big band led by Jools Holland with Eddi Reader as the singer - are wasted on such a thin film.
ME AND ORSON WELLES played Toronto 2008 but has only just been released in the USA and the UK. Never a good sign.