Film review: Me and Orson Welles
Director: Richard Linklater
Running time: 114 minutes
LIKE Citizen Kane, Orson Welles still casts a larger-than-life shadow as an actor, filmmaker, and purveyor of Carlsberg beer and Birds-Eye peas, even though he passed away almost quarter of a century ago. Maybe that's why biopics have tended to place Welles at the margins of another person's story – commiserating over directing hardships in Ed Wood, stropping about in The Cradle Will Rock – lest he gobble up the screen. Perhaps Tim Burton arrived at the best compromise for Ed Wood; Vincent D'Onofrio was chosen for his resemblance to Welles while Maurice LaMarche pitched his version of that regretful bassoon of a voice.
When you need two actors to play one behemoth, you can guess who is going to dominate in a film called Me And Orson Welles – even though "me" is played by Zac Efron, who is the equivalent of tween movie heroin right now. You also have to give props to Efron for pitching his star power into a low budget movie with no song-and-dance high school numbers and the Isle of Man standing in for a Depression era New York.
Nor is he at all bad as 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a student who stumbles into landing a bit part in a 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, directed by Welles (played by British stage actor Christian McKay, who previously portrayed the big man at the Edinburgh Festival). Welles' wised-up ambitious production assistant (Claire Danes) tries to warn the young actor that he may be working for Welles but he shouldn't expect anything so vulgar as money to change hands. "You're not getting paid," she says. "You're getting the opportunity of being sprayed by Orson Welles' spit."
This is Welles as an enfant at the very start of his career, yet already terrible. Only four years older than Samuels, he's already a worldly married man with a child on the way and affairs on the side; a star on Broadway, he speeds to radio studios by ambulance to record episodes of The Shadow, and earns admiration when he apparently extemporises speeches live on air.
Welles both awes and dominates Samuels, just as McKay makes High School Musical's Troy Bolton look weightless against his tour de force performance. It's not just that McKay has the sonorous voice, the babyfat looks, the girth and those restlessly amused eyebrows. His Welles goes beyond karaoke into a performance that captures both Welles' charm, his bravery, his cowardice and his brutality.
If the rest of Richard Linklater's film was as good as McKay showing Efron how to light a cigarette in a way that will impress girls, this would be a five-star experience, but when McKay is off-screen you can feel the temperature dip and the pace slacken off.
This is a film about three romances: Samuel's platonic crush on Welles, which is understandable; his attempts to romance Danes' capable career girl, which has all the heat of rubbing two wet matches together; and a passion for the stage. Linklater has most success persuading us that the Mercury company's Julius Caesar really was an exciting milestone in Broadway theatre. The glimpses we're given of rehearsals and the first night made me wish that someone could show us the whole thing.
General release from Friday
• This article first appeared in the 29 November edition of Scotland on Sunday