Combustible Celluloid
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With: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Kelly Reilly, James Tupper, Leo Bill, Al Weaver, Iain McKee, Simon Lee Phillips, Simon Nehan, Imogen Poots, Patrick Kennedy
Written by: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr., based on a novel by Robert Kaplow
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual references and smoking
Running Time: 114
Date: 09/05/2008

Me and Orson Welles (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Genius and the Nothing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Blustering around the theater, barking orders, gesticulating and generally putting on a show of genius, Christian McKay is the best screen Orson Welles since Orson Welles himself. In this enchanting fictional re-creation of 1937, director Richard Linklater shows Welles at work mounting Julius Caesar for the stage using then modern-day dress. The usual backstage madness occurs, and it's simply magical to watch Welles as he might have actually handled it all.

But here's the drawback: Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is actually focused on a character called Richard Samuels, who is one of those "passive observer" types. He's the young kid who enters this exciting and strange new world so that all the characters can explain it to him (and us) as he goes along. It's a device that Cameron Crowe used in the overrated Almost Famous (2000) and it has never really been very effective. Even the best actor would have trouble fleshing out such a role.

But what's worse -- much worse -- is that Richard is played by the super-bland, ultra-forgettable, pretty-boy "High School Musical" star Zac Efron. Between Welles and Efron is about six trillion miles of talent, but Linklater simply chooses to ignore this irony, which suggests that Me and Orson Welles would probably never have been bankrolled without Efron.

That's just about the saddest thing I've ever heard, but the truth is that it's worth sitting through Efron's vacant performance to get to the meat of McKay's performance. Welles was a huge personality, with many, many quirks and defense mechanisms set in place, and like Charles Foster Kane, it's unlikely that anyone really got to know him well. But Linklater and McKay find a chink in his armor and play it to the hilt, making an emotionally fascinating, flawed character of him.

There are other characters in this ensemble, of course, including Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who likes Richard, but also nurtures relationships with Orson and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) in the name of her own career. Joseph Cotten (James Tupper, another dead ringer) is here, too. When he's not hobnobbing with stars, Richard also hangs out with fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan); he listens to her with such a vacuous expression on his face that we can't tell if he likes her or is just thinking about lunch.

Linklater, who is a most un-Welles-like director, holds all this together with his usual easygoing flow. But, like Welles, he finds his art struggling against commerce and has taken a blow in the form of Efron in order to get his otherwise wonderful film made.

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