It's "Training Day" for thatre geeks and if you step back and think about it, I pretty much just nailed it. It's about an up-and-comer who's dreams are plagued by this teacher who knows what he's doing, but is so corrupt by his power that he is harsh, unforgiving, promiscuious and vulgar. I actually don't mind that last part. I just had to mention that, because if this film teaches you nothing else, then it's that Orson Welles was about as profane as he was profound. Well, actually, I guess that goes hand-in-hand with the real message of this film: Orson Welles was a bit of a jerk. Hey, as long as he kept making great films or at least be well-known enough to be used as a device for the making of a great film, then I don't care if he was the real inspiration for the Hannibal Lecter character, which he may have been, considering how he ended up. Look out for "Hannibal Rising Cholesterol Levels" soon, but right now, let no "moe" (Watch the film - and I mean "watch the film - and you'll get it) be said that this is a deeply charming and engagingly memorable work of art... or at least the Orson Welles part of the story is.
This is a film that does so much right, except something that you cannot afford to mess up: Create a powerhouse of a supporting character without fleshing out a balancing lead well enough. Now, the writers got so ridiculously lucky that McKay and Efron could work well enough with eachother so that McKay to not completely drown out our true lead, because the script should have been interested in said lead a little more and should have been interested in his romantic subplot... at all. The Richard Samuels story is a messily covered one once it leaves the theatre setting, because the writers and director Richard Linklater seem much more interested in Orson Welles' side of the story. Now, that's not to say that you can blame them, because the theatre segments, in concept alone, are easily the highest points of a film that consists almost entirely of high points, but you can blame the filmmakers for hardly even trying to flesh out the real star of the show, a sad fact made clear as day within seconds into this film, where they offer us almost nothing in terms of development for Zac Efron's Richard Samuels character. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it only gets worse from there, once the love story comes into play and is lazily forced into the story in a fashion so messy that it feels completely forgettable or at best, expendable, which it shouldn't, because it ends up playing such a major part in the grand scheme. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the romantic subplot thoroughly, because I did, but the lack of interest that went into making it is easily the lowest note this film hits, which - Jumpin' Jackie Earl Haley - is saying borderline nothing, because everything about this film is so good, but it's still something to say, nevertheless. Really, what hurts this film the most is the script, because so much of the dialogue and even some of the plot points are rather generic and if this film was to be taken on by anyone less than Linklater, it very easily could have been a hollow, but as it stands, Linklater injects such life, passion and entertainment value into this film and makes it look effortless.
There can be no film without plot nor conflict, but when you get down to the bare bones, this is film looking to be smart, but wildly enjoyable fun without any pretense, and when you're making a period piece about theatre, let alone an Orson Welles theatre, that is a concept you just cannot even consider jumping into while half-cocked. In comes Richard Linklater - who understands the period and art house genres almost as well as he undertstands crafting entertainment value - to absorb the life of a charming time lost and revive it in a fashion that's true to the time, yet not dated for our taste in fun, which is impressive enough when you don't consider how easily things could have gone wrong. Of course, you can't simply revive the charm and spirit of a period with tone alone (Ha-ha, rhyme). The production designs in this film cannot recieve enough praise, as they're so slick, authentic and lively that it tosses you right into this lost world. Not to mention that the cinematography boasts such a glow and slickness that complements the environment razor-sharply. As for the screenplay, for all you know, I've panned it, but really, although it features the biggest flaws of the film, it primarily boasts some of the greatest strengths. The dialogue - rather generic though, it may be - still has plenty of snap, as well as crackle and let us not the pop, but no matter how much charm is in the concept, the dialogue still could have remained hollow were it not for a factor you know we can't even dream of not discussing: the acting.
This film is packed with characters, many of which are similar and the performers play their roles as such with distinctiveness and charisma so electric that whether they're standing alone or working off of each other, everyone plays their own key part in setting the entertainment value and are incredibly colorful and memorable. Even Claire Danes is memorable, in spite of her forgettable subplot, which is still quite enjoyable, but couldn't have been so without her sharp charisma and chemistry with Efron that has you constantly wondering what will happen next, even if the writers don't care too much. Still, the supporting performance to end all supporting performances is Christian McKay, who gives us a surrealistically awe-inspiring portrayal of the greatest of the late greats: Mr. Orson Welles. It's not enough that McKay looks the part, but he entirely transforms into the legend, adopting his mannerisms and characteristics so strikingly authentically thay you're glued to the screen every time he graces it with his powerful presence. However, it's not just the authenticity of McKay's portrayal of Welles that captivates you, for although he was a true person, Welles is a character in this story and McKay is so careful to play his layered, somewhat antagonistic role in a manner that's both compelling and fits Welles' personality, but never to where you look at him and only see Orson Welles, instead of a piece of the puzzle. Still, no matter how great and show-stealing McKay is, this is Zac Efron's story and although his character could be fleshed-out a bit more, Efron is still given enough material and emits enough charisma for you to believe him as a lead capable of carrying this film when McKay is absent, even if he feels miscast... based only on his name. Seriously, he looks as much like a Richard as I look like a Javier.
In the end, in spite of its rather uneven focus, "Me and Orson Welles" remains a deeply fascinating and wildly entertaining study on theatre life under the late, great Orson Welles, made extra lively by the dazzling production, handsome visual style, Linklater's charming direction and the massive cast of colorful, memorable talents, headed by a slickly charismatic Zac Efron and a masterful portrayal of a masterful legend by Christian McKay.
3.5/5 - Solid