“Sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life,” says blue-eyed puppy dog Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) to his jaded, older love interest. That’s certainly true if your week involves scoring a bit part alongside Orson Welles. The trouble lies in how to keep Orson from outshining everything and everyone else. In some ways, Richard Linklater struck gold when he found Christian McKay. The man completely embodies Orson Welles in appearance and charisma alike. He’s like walking Cliff’s Notes for the legendary genius and charming egomaniac. Unfortunately for the rest of the film, he’s easily the most memorable thing about it.
Set in 1937, Efron plays a plucky teenage actor who scams his way into bit part in Welles’ fascist adaptation of “Julius Caesar”, a week before it’s due to open. Along the way, he becomes smitten with Orson’s ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes) and learns a few important lessons about “how the world works”. Since this is show business, the “world” in question is theatre, and the lessons are learned the hard way.
“Me & Orson Welles” is Zac Efron’s first real attempt to shed the cheesy teenybopper image bestowed upon him by the Cult of Disney. It’s an admirable career move. He wants to grow up and he wants to do it without snorting anything. And though Efron does show a lot of promise as an actor (he handles old-timey posturing very well) it’s almost unfair to, in his first non-family outing, pair him next to Christian McKay. True, being outshined by Orson Welles is part of Richard’s character. But it backfires because Christian McKay similarly steals the spotlight from Efron, even when they’re not sharing a scene.
Another problem with the film is that it lacks the usual depth of a Linklater story. There are no existential conversations here, nor keen observations about finding your potential. Perhaps it’s because the story is about actors, but it all seems rather shallow and self-absorbed. The principal lesson here is that one does what they have to in order to get ahead, be it calculated sexual liaisons or refraining from talking back to your boss, even when you know you’re right. Is everything really as simple as “you can’t always get what want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need”?
There are some wonderful moments and a few gems of dialogue. But what everyone is going to be talking about is Christian McKay. Sonja says that the “principal occupation of the Mercury Theatre is waiting for Orson.” Similarly, the principal occupation of the “Me & Orson Welles” audience is wading through the Me parts to get to more Orson. Better luck next time, kid.