Despite the best efforts of Christian McKay, “Me and Orson Welles” suffers from a lack of substance and occasional tastelessness.
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Nearly everything about Orson Welles intrigues me. There has likely never been a more tragically heroic figure in the history of Hollywood cinema. He was a scammer, an intellectual, an innovator, and the truest American auteur. He was a thoroughly quixotic man and it is one of life’s great ironies that the world will never have his “Don Quixote”, despite the efforts of numerous editors to revive the project. His genius was bounded only by his purse and that of the studios that tended to gut his films, occasionally leaving mere husks where genius once was. He was an unrepentant narcissist but had the work to back it up. And in an attempt to capture his image and the effect he had on the lives he touched, Richard Linklater made a trite film full of undeservedly wry glances and little emotional import.
In “Me and Orson Welles,” Welles is relegated to the back seat. Rather, it follows Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a brash young man who secures a place in the Mercury Theatre production of Caesar. This production in reality would be lauded as an avant-garde indictment of European fascist regimes, but this is never touched upon. I imagine because this would take time away from attempting to build Samuels’ dimensionality, except Efron’s performance lacks charisma or really any emotional depth so these efforts prove rather fruitless.
But as Samuels is introduced to Welles (Christian McKay) outside of the Mercury Theatre there is a glimmer of intrigue early in the film. He enchants the already renowned thespian through pure braggadocio, declaring his prominence as an actor and musician and is inevitably hired. This is a nicely veiled comparison to Orson Welles’ own start in the theatre, beginning his acting career in Ireland after prematurely declaring himself a famous actor from America without a credit to his name. But this comparison of youthful bravado is just about as clever as “Me and Orson Welles” ever really gets. As Richard begins his stage career he falls in love, learns under Welles’ tutelage, has his heart broken, and is repeatedly demeaned. And yet, by the film’s end, he seems to be in more or less the exact same place as where he began. It is less of a coming of age story and more of a circuitous route back to the film’s beginning, having seemingly learned little other than slight disillusionment.
But perhaps the most disheartening element of the film is just how good Christian McKay’s performance truly is. He channels Welles fantastically, with every mannerism, insight, lie, and diatribe. I only wish the movie surrounding his performance was really any good. But instead, for every moment of depth or clarity in the writing, there is an insufferable wink towards the future trajectory of Welles’ career. Without provocation or necessity, he remarks upon on his familial relation to Booth Tarkington and extols the genius of The Magnificent Ambersons. Upon exiting the Mercury one night he exclaims, “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” These lines seem written not by someone with a deep understanding of the man himself but by someone who just finished reading his Wikipedia entry. They are forced and unnecessary, injected into the story only so that those with a base familiarity with Welles can nod in approval, happy to be in on the joke.
There is also a strangely dark undertone to Samuels’ eventual love interest. Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) is a production assistant for the Mercury Theatre. She is career-driven, which in this film means she is at the whim of every powerful man around her. She obsesses over a hopeful correspondence with David O. Selznick who is to begin producing “Gone with the Wind” shortly. But more disheartening is her ready liaison with Welles. She cheerily goes along with sickening “casting couch” improprieties, a dark subject to even be broached considering the film’s overall tone. And the agency that Sonja seems to posses in the character’s introduction is defenestrated as she moves from man to man, rarely if ever objecting to or criticizing these overtly sexist and exploitative practices.
Several bright spots exist beyond McKay’s performance. The jazz score provides a bit of jaunt in a world where jokes tend to fall flat. There is a clever reincorporation of a character’s observance of the “quadruple space” that is utilized in novels of the time to indicate sex but retain decency. And really the final few shots of the film provide some uplift in lieu of a meaningful character arc. The movie is at its finest when a bit of flourish is added to the cinematography, like the after party scene that follows Samuels as he moves from vapid actor to vapid actor. If this shot carried more weight and about three more minutes in length I would compare to Altman. But these few flickers of poise and originality are built on a foundation of artifice.
And I understand perfectly well that the Orson Welles presented here is intended to be a wretched closed book. But it seems like there are moments where we come close to gleaning just a bit of information about his psyche before the film pulls away to give its PG-13 audience more Efron. But in doing so, no real emotional attachment can be made to any character found within the ensemble. So what we are left with is one actor working desperately to bring substance to what he is given and a movie that undercuts him with shallow dialogue and a protagonist that fails to captivate.
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