It's been a terribly lackluster week for me movie-wise since my month-old Samsung HDTV burned some fuse after a power outage in the neighborhood. After carrying the awkward, heavy thing on the subway and into a UPS to ship back to the manufacturer for repairs, I am left with nothing to watch DVDs with (as, you see, my laptop is also broken and in need of repair). My Netflix lie on the table untouched, shedding money with every day that passes. The only option I have is to watch Instant Play films on my wife's 10-inch netbook, from which I am typing, but I haven't been that desperate (yet).
So I went to the movies, in need of some large-scale moving images and all-encompassing sound. I decided to see Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, as I love Welles -- the man and the myth -- and was sure that I could soak up at least some of his spirit through Christian McKay. The movie opened with some rather nice '30s period details and a golden tint with Zac Efron in the middle of all of it, on a train and reading Shakespeare. I repressed a laugh and decided I would give Mr. Efron the full benefit of the doubt, trying my best to shed the stigma of his Disney tween associations. The scene continues as he wanders through the magic that is New York City in the '30s, taking in the awe of the bustle and skyscrapers. He sees a group of loud actors outside of the Mercury Theater and steps inside the crowd, insisting on playing a drum roll on the snare drum brought out by one of the actors. And that drum roll properly prepares the entrance for the star of the film, which is Christian McKay, donning Welles' consciously-arrogant smirk and vocal affectations.
It's McKay who carries the entire movie with charm and ability, completely nailing the Welles mannerisms -- his wit, ego, and brilliance. McKay's performance is supported by a very likable Jo Cotten (James Tupper), clownish Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and frustrated, gentlemanly John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). And if the film were up to these characters -- the actors and crew of Mercury Theater -- then this film would probably have had enough sparkle to make it a great film. Instead, we are forced to tolerate Zac Efron and Claire Danes as narrative centerpieces, as well as Zoe Kazan's pointless character, who lack the charm, lightness, and talent necessary to sustain McKay and the rest of the film.
Efron does his best, appearing earnest at times, even cracking his voice with adolescent nervousness, but he is so unconvincing and uninteresting that it completely fails to take off. Danes is a better actor, but she was completely miscast. It was hard to feel a thing between them at any point of the film. A lot of this has to do with the writing, which, aside from Welles' character, is contrived and lightweight (the ending should induce immense eye rolling). Even so, replacing Efron and Danes with more interesting or convincing actors (and getting rid of Zoe Kazan and that whole sub-plot altogether) could have made this a really good movie, instead of a vehicle for a really good Orson Welles imitation by McKay, which is what it is.