Thereís a great deal of arrogance buried inside the title of Richard Linklaterís latest, Me and Orson Welles, as if anyone, let alone some bright-eyed kid named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), could ever hope to compete with one of the 20th centuryís undisputed geniuses. Clearly, one is never actually with such a man, and with absolute certainty, heís unlikely to ever stoop to notice that youíre in the vicinity. Choose a context or location, fevered or relaxed, and heíll always be several steps ahead, and just as likely would have considered and dispensed with your position before your mind started the process. Heís of the few men who wonít ever be out-hustled, even while in the prone position. His talent is so all-encompassing, in fact, that heís able to strike a blow, knock you flat, and score a pin, all before he enters the room. Such is that special brand of genius that strips you naked with defeat by reputation alone. Actual effort is simply the cherry on top, perhaps that last, best source of amusement. Given this titanic legacy, the only thing that really matters in a movie like this is casting; every shred of potential interest will rise or fall on the selected actor in question. Settle for mere impersonation, and the story flies off the rails as a one-joke distraction. Insist on the familiar face, and the audience remains aloof, always aware of the fantasy, which quickly devolves into the ridiculous.
Hereís to masterful casting. Christian McKay, a British actor heretofore unknown to, well, just about everyone who pays even half-hearted attention to the movies, is not only the best possible Orson Welles, he just might be the goddamn resurrection. Iíve seen a great deal of movies in my time, including hundreds of bio-pics, period recreations, and docudramas, but McKayís Orson now stands alone as the best realization of a historical figure in the history of film. In possession of his physical bearing, facial structure, and, good lord, the voice, McKay all but had me convinced theyíd spliced in lost footage from the archives and passed it off as performance. Itís beyond uncanny, itís exhilarating, as if modern audiences could, at long last, spend a few days and nights with a truly unique American figure, raw and uncensored. Though Christianís personal finances may disagree, I would strongly urge Mr. McKay to take stock, consider a lifeís work complete, and never act again. Like the man he inhabits down to his marrow, he could have that indelible moment when no one has done it better, and not bother to invite comparison. An Oscar would surely prevent such a rush to blissful anonymity, but Iím rooting for him anyway. Knowing the Academy, and because it is more than deserved, the role will likely be ignored altogether. Welles lost his to Gary Cooper, a man more cigar store Indian than actor, so at least heís in good company at the loserís table.
The rest of the movie, if it even matters, feels bloodless and feeble whenever McKay steps away from the action, which is a shame, because itís not as bad as it sounds. Sure, Efron is a preposterous presence in any movie, let alone facing a man like McKay, but heís somehow right as a dopey kid whose idealism and plucky ambition seem to foreshadow the YouTube generation, where fame has become the ultimate civil right. Young Richard will never make it, of course, at least if a lasting impact is sought, but heís just dim enough to make a career of hackwork. Men like Richard spend their careers regurgitating mediocrity for their supper, while the Orsons of the world strike but once, chasing that initial high until they go mad. Itís this contrast that speaks so well to the sadness of life, in that talent, vision, and creativity must bite their tongues as they cede the landscape to the decidedly average. No wonder Welles threw it all away for a three-decade eating binge and commercial prostitution. After all, if you claim to have lived your entire life without disappointment or compromise, youíve only ended up a bad liar. Still, one must be glad Welles is but a supporting player, much as The Third Man would have emptied seats had Harry Lime not waited in the shadows for just the right moment. Thatís another thing about geniuses: better they keep appearances to a minimum, lest they remind us too often of our shortcomings.