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Touch of Evel Knievel

Me and Orson Welles (2009)

Liam Daniel/CinemaNX Films One

On paper, an adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel "Me and Orson Welles" appears an unlikely breakthrough picture for Zac Efron. Yet the fact that it's the latest work of Richard Linklater, director of cult slacker movie "Dazed and Confused," is perhaps more surprising. Mr. Linklater's period piece charting Orson Welles's legendary 1937 production of "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theatre is an intriguing proposition that unfortunately never really delivers on its promise. While Mr. Efron's portrayal of naïve aspiring actor Richard Samuels will inevitably stir the public's interest, Mr. Linklater's picture in fact firmly belongs to Christian McKay's exceptional turn as the unpredictable Welles.

Seventeen-year-old Richard is a cheekily confident schoolboy who stumbles across an impromptu audition for Welles's imminent production of "Julius Caesar." Essentially blagging his way into the minor part of Lucius, Richard finds himself in the maelstrom that is the Mercury Theatre one week before opening night. Fiercely ambitious production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) takes the green Richard under her wing, coaching him in his role and sheltering him from the terrifically arrogant Welles, who is so expertly interpreted by Mr. McKay. Welles was a flawed genius — a tempestuous, self-centerd egotist, conceited yet absolutely brilliant — and Mr. McKay captures every facet and nuance of Welles's personality.

What transpires is the travails of a week of rehearsals from script rewrites to accidental floods to endless run-throughs, and Richard and Sonja's blossoming relationship. All this plays out against the magnificent period backdrop of the Isle of Man's Gaiety Theatre (doubling as the Mercury). By restricting the majority of the picture to the theater's interior, Mr. Linklater ensures that the acting and the screenplay takes center stage with Welles's theatrical troupe, particularly Ben Chapin as nervy George Coulouris and Eddie Marsan as embattled John Houseman providing solid support. In fact, such is the quality of the acting talent on show that Mr. Efron's valiant attempt to establish himself as a serious actor is somewhat overshadowed. To his credit, Mr. Efron puts in a capable performance, but there's a niggling doubt about his ability to operate in such elevated company, particularly when he shares the screen with the supreme Mr. McKay.

As opening night looms, Richard learns about life and love, cast off by the ruthless Sonja and vilified by Welles for daring to stand up to him. But rather predictably, everything falls into place and the production is a resounding success. Mr. Linklater perhaps dwells a bit too much on the actual opening night performance, which actually comes across as a little superfluous given the crux of the story is Richard's journey and not the denouement. Welles purists may revel in the detail, but it does mean the picture rather meanders towards its conclusion.

It's a fairly formulaic coming-of-age tale — Mr. Efron's Richard encapsulating the principled naivety of youth, grand dreams and ambitions shattered by life's harsh realities. Plaudits should be reserved for Mr. McKay's outstanding portrayal of the brutal Welles, ably supported as he is by Ms. Danes, Messrs. Chaplin, Marsan et al. Yet "Me and Orson Welles" is unusual addition to Mr. Linklater's pantheon of work; while it's well acted and ably directed, it's just a touch too insipid and safe and never really engaging enough.


Opens on Nov. 25 in New York and Los Angeles and on Dec. 4 in Britain.

Directed by Richard Linklater; written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Sandra Adair; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Mr. Linklater, Marc Samuelson and Ann Carli; released by Freestyle Releasing (United States) and CinemaNX Distribution. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Zac Efron (Richard Samuels/Lucius), Claire Danes (Sonja Jones), Christian McKay (Orson Welles/Brutus), Ben Chaplin (George Coulouris/Mark Antony), Zoe Kazan (Gretta Adler), Eddie Marsan (John Houseman), Kelly Reilly (Muriel Brassler/Portia) and James Tupper (Joseph Cotten/Publius).


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