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Me and Orson Welles


[Rating: 1.5/5]

Thanks to the success of the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical,”  bedroom-eyed Zac Efron is all the rage amongst tweeny-boppers.   Since I don’t generally watch movies like “High School Musical” or “17 Again,”  “Me and Orson Welles” is the first time I’ve encountered him on the screen.  One might also consider it his first attempt at a “serious” film, one not aimed exclusively at the 14-22 year old female audience.  Some actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio, are able to break out of the tween idol phase and establish themselves as serious actors worthy of respect.   Others, like Robert Sean Leonard and Neil Patrick Harris, disappear for a while, and then reinvent themselves in supporting roles on TV shows.

Efron plays a high schooler who dreams of being an actor.   The setting is New York in the ‘30s;  Efron sneaks out of school and auditions for plays on Broadway.  He surreptitiously lands a small role in Orson Welles’ production of “Julius Caesar.”  This was before “Citizen Kane,”  before “War of the Worlds,” when Welles was known primarily as a stage actor.   He is a man aware of his own greatness, which the world around him is just beginning to realize.  He is almost impossible to work with.   A better title for this film would be “Waiting for Orson Welles,”  as that’s what the rest of the theatrical company do with most of their time.

Christian McKay has gotten a lot of attention for his portrayal of Welles; he was nominated for a BAFTA (the British version of the Oscar) as well as quite a few critics’ circle awards; he won a few.   I’m going to chalk this up, as well as the generally favorable reviews this movie has gotten, to film critics’ fascination with movie history.  McKay’s performance seems hollow to me; There is no sense of inner life or emotional resonance in the performance, only gesture and bombast. I always felt very aware that I was watching an actor impersonate another actor, albeit a great and very famous one.

In the course of the production, Efron courts and falls for the box office secretary, played by Claire Danes, and then must compete with Welles for her attention.  This romance doesn’t work for a second.   The star of “My So-Called Life” clearly belongs to an earlier generation of tweeny-boppers, and even then, she seemed older than her age.  In the right role (ie, “Shopgirl”) this sense of maturity adds to her character.  But watching her fall for the charms of Zac Efron has an eerie “Harold and Maude” quality to it.   I don’t think that’s what director Richard Linklater was going for.

(Speaking of Linklater,  what’s he doing directing a slight script like this?   Why is the director of distinctive and memorable films like “Dazed and Confused,” “Slacker” and “Waking Life” attaching himself to a period drama star vehicle for a Disney Channel moneymaker?  Is he broke, or just bored?  What has happened to one of the most original and promising directors of the ‘90s, and what will it take for him to get his mojo back?)

As for Zac Efron, he reminds me more of Robert Sean Leonard than Leonardo DiCaprio.  He has great eyes and exceptional eyebrows, and not much else going for him.  One of the unintentional laughs in “Me and Orson Welles” comes when Welles calls him a “God-created actor.”  This is hardly true of Efron.   He’s cute, for sure.  But he lacks the gravitas, the emotional intensity, the presence of actors who last and gain our respect.  He will most likely be replaced by the next hot teenage heartthrob, and forgotten.  Maybe someday he’ll be able to land a supporting role on a TV sitcom.

And I can’t say much more for “Me and Orson Welles.”  This is a slight and forgettable production, a movie without much substance or resonance.  It might find a home on cable TV, playing semi-regularly on USA or one of the Family networks.  Really, the best I can hope for it would be that some teenage girl somehwere sees it because of Zac Efron, becomes intrigued by Orson Welles, and then watches “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “The Third Man” or any of the rest of Welles’ wonderful movies.   If this slight and forgettable movie manages to point an otherwise unsuspecting viewer towards one of those great films, then perhaps it was worth making after all.

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