There are a few directors who make dull, even insipid movies much too often for it to be a "surprise", but I'm heartbroken every time it happens anyway. One of the kings of this tendency is Richard Linklater, who made the stunning dyad of romantic dramas Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, as well as the most perfect of all "end of high school" movies, Dazed and Confused; and because of this, I regularly declare him a genius in full defiance of the evidence of The Newton Boys and the remake of Bad News Bears, or his latest project, Me and Orson Welles: perhaps the most willfully mediocre thing he's ever directed.

On paper, the film's plot looks like this: it's 1937 in New York, and there's this 17-year-old kid named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who really wants to be an actor, and one day as he's headed home from school, he makes a point of drifting past the Mercury Theater, which is still waiting on its big debut production, a politically-charged staging of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar directed by a tremendously famous Wunderkind, 22-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), who in those days had already proven himself a white-hot prodigy with the so-called Voodoo Macbeth, and the chaotic production of the leftist play Cradle Will Rock. He and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), a collaborator at the Federal Theatre, elected to start their own company, and its opening had to be delayed several times to account for Welles's insane perfectionism. I explain all this in case you happen to ignore my recommendation and see Me and Orson Welles anyway, and find yourself as horribly confused by the utter lack of historical context as I was.

So yes, Richard hangs around outside, jawing with the actors, and manages to charm Welles enough that the director casts him in the small but - to this production - pivotal role of Lucius. Once accepted into the inner circle of Mercury players, Richard finds himself awash in raw creativity and a whole new world of society and adulthood; most of all, he finds himself falling in love with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the Mercury secretary, receptionist, accountant - basically, the only person besides Houseman who has anything to do with the actual functioning of the company. As he experiences one amazing week with the company, Richard comes to find that art is not all it seems, and that people in the theater world make and break promises much too readily: in short, he experiences a rough but beautiful coming-of-age.

That's on paper. As filmed, this is what the movie is about: there was a man named Orson Welles, and he was both a genius and a complete prick, the end. I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes like to be a snarky asshole and act as though films are more reductive than they really are, just for the fun of it, but I'm being really serious in this case: at the end of Me and Orson Welles, I had absolutely no idea what on earth it was about other than demonstrating how over-saturated Welles's personality could be, and how much of a magnificent bastard he was. And frankly, I'm pretty sure that anyone who goes to see a movie called Me and Orson Welles is going to have a fairly good idea of how very unique that particular gentleman was in both the worlds of theater and film. Certainly, I for one could have done without the pointed references to the director's later cinematic work, which have the characteristics of in-jokes but the hammer-handed subtlety of vaudeville: "Oho, did you know that Orson Welles loved The Magnificent Ambersons? Haha yes, and he also would one day make a Falstaff movie called Chimes at Midnight".

Of course, Welles was such a character in life that any movie based upon his erratic behavior can't help but be at least a bit diverting, and the film is helped by McKay's much-praised performance: it's not much other than an overly-manned bit of skilled mimicry, but then, Welles took such delight throughout his life in presenting himself as a wholly artificial personality (check out the behind-the-scenes details of any one of the movies he directed or acted in; better still, watch his outstanding 1973 essay film F for Fake), so it could well be argued that shallow mimicry is the only appropriate way to play the man in a fictional narrative. The one significant problem I do have with McKay is nothing to do with his talents, but with his age: at 36, he's not convincing at all as a brash child-genius, even if Welles always looked to be about ten years older than he really was.

The really big problem is with the "Me" half of Me and Orson Welles: McKay's vast, self-absorbed Welles is so overpowering that the story's nominal protagonist can't help but feel a bit limp in comparison, and it helps matters not even a tiny bit that Efron and Danes evince all the charisma and erotic charge of a wet sock making love to a waterbug hopped up on caffeine. Frankly, Richard is not at all interesting as written, and it would have taken a far better actor than Efron to compensate for that, if indeed it could have been done at all. There's absolutely no damn point to any moment of the film that isn't fixated on Welles and his eccentricities, and they make up a goodly portion of the movie; maybe half, maybe a bit less.

Maybe - maybe - this could all have been saved if Linklater and his crew were at the top of their game, rolling through the big cast and wide array of backstage intrigue with the same free-spirited crackerjack intensity of the director's Slacker, for example. Unfortunately, Linklater is in unusually flaccid form, and he's not helped out at all by cinematography Dick Pope, a man whose name always promises a certain level of sleepy handsomeness (save for his collaborations with Mike Leigh). There's even less fire behind the camera shooting Me and Orson Welles than in the non-McKay portions of the cast; and the whole thing turns out to be the perfunctory, absolutely competent and boring sort of fluff typical of the worst - rather, the most wholly mediocre - of prestige filmmaking.