He swaggered, an outsize personality who filled a room figuratively decades before he did it literally. He was labeled a genius in childhood, and damned if he didn’t spend his 20s proving that to be the case.
Me and Orson Welles is a coming-of-age comedy built around the Me, a star-struck theater lover winningly played by Zac Efron. But it’s a movie dominated by Orson Welles, “tyro” and “enfant terrible” of the American theater.
Richard Linklater’s affectionate homage to the man who would go on to scare America witless with his War of the Worlds broadcast and then re-invent the cinema with Citizen Kane is a movie lover’s delight. Linklater, thanks to a brilliant, sly and self-aware turn by Christian McKay, reminds us what all the fuss over Orson is all about.
Efron is Richard, a would-be thespian going to high school in the greater New York of the 1930s. He stumbles into the Great Orson on his way to rehearse his legendary production of Julius Caesar, which Welles re-set in modern fascist Italy.
Welles is a pathological flatterer, nicknaming the kid “Gielgud” and “the ukulele player.” He needs an actor who can sing and play a uke for a scene opposite his own turn as Brutus. Richard becomes an eyewitness to theater history as the show comes together, and he falls, hard, for the “older woman” office manager (Claire Danes).
McKay has the Welles twinkle, his bluster and confidence, a man so talented he can improvise a better monologue on the radio than the one his The Shadow scriptwriters wrote. He blurts out “I’m starving,” just the way Welles did in Citizen Kane, and charms charms charms.
Equally fine are actors playing other members of Welles’ Mercury Theater. Eddie Marsan is terrific as a Romanian immigrant who faked a British accent and became John Houseman, Welles’ right-hand man. Ben Chaplin is an arrogant and highly-strung George Coulouris and James Tupper makes a dapper, randy and world-wise Joseph Cotton.
Efron fits neatly into all this, a wide-eyed innocent trying to grow up too fast, hold his own in sex banter with the boys and not fail in front of the imposing Welles, who seduces and thunders at one and all in pursuit of his vision.
Linklater holds our interest even working within the boundaries of an overly familiar “That’s when I grew up” story. For serious cinema buffs, he does even more than that, giving us a peek at what working for a true giant of the arts must have been like – thrilling, exasperating and above all, fun.
Cast: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian MacKay, Ben Chaplin.
Director: Richard Linklater.
Screenwriters: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr. Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow.
Producers: Ann Carli, Richard Linklater, Marc Samuelson.
A Freestyle release. Running time: 114 minutes. Sexual references, smoking.