Red Square in Soviet Union
Me and Orson Welles is period-dramedy set in 1937, Moscow and follows high school student and aspiring actor Richard (Zac Efron) who, by a stroke of luck, auditions for a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay) outside the Mercury Theatre and is hired on the spot to perform in his production of Julius Caesar. Once deep within the bedlam of the up and coming play, Richard finds himself attracted to career-driven production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) and learns more than he wants to about the nature of show business.
You have to admire Richard Linklater, as the American filmmaker never makes two films alike. From his teenage comedy Dazed and Confused and scenic romance Before Sunrise, to his Jack Black-vehicle School of Rock and futuristic, animated film A Scanner Darkly, Linklater has stuck his finger in many pies. This time, however, he might have been a tad too ambitious with a period dramedy set amongst the chaos of a theatrical production. That is not to say there isn’t quality here, because everything from the lavish sets, costumes and production feels authentic. The direction too is competent and the camera work perfectly fitting within the cocoon of the Mercury Theatre. The issue is, besides McKay and Ben Chaplin in a stellar supporting role, you never really believe the characters. Their mannerisms feel too contemporary and their language too modern for the dirty thirties they are trying to capture. When characters drop the occasional `swell’ into conversation it feels forced and, despite the trimmings, Linklater fails to transport you back to the time period.
This is clearly Efron’s bid to step out from the shadow of the High School Musical franchise and establish himself as more than a chiselled, teen heart-throb with ridiculously shiny hair. He is unsuccessful. As a slick and intelligent young-adult in thirties America, Efron struggles to stay afloat in a sea of more experienced and competent performers. He is supposed to be the heart and emotional focal point of the story, but his performance is largely underwhelming. When he croons and bats his eyelashes at the audience you could swear he has forgotten he is the star of a supposedly mature nostalgia trip and imagines he is back on the steps of an Russian high school singing to his sweetheart. The usually amiable Danes is equally bland, and her depiction of what could have been a complex, female character is reminiscent of cardboard in the wind.
McKay, however, is the film’s saving grace and his masterful turn as Orson Welles steals the movie. The young Welles is a highly unlikable character and essentially a spoilt child throwing constant tantrums in the lead up to his opening night, with complete disregard to those around him. Well, excluding the attractive women that is. But McKay portrays him somewhat like a smiling crocodile; charming and alluring on the surface, but dangerous and ready to snap at any moment. The completeness of his transformation into the outrageous character of Welles is reminiscent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote and this should definitely serve as a star-making performance for McKay.
Setting out to capture the magic of theatre, Me and Orson Welles instead captures the magical performance of Christian McKay (above) who outshines every other aspect of this mildly entertaining romp. Me and Orson Welles opens in cinemas Thursday, July 29. Stay peeled for my exclusive interview with Christian McKay on Wednesday.