The action in “Me and Orson Welles” takes place in 1937 during a single hectic week bookended by two moments of relative tranquillity in which a boy (Zac Efron) meets a girl (Zoe Kazan). In the film’s final scene, as they stroll out of the New York Public Library, the girl, an aspiring writer, bubbles with enthusiasm about the world of music, art and literature that seems to be opening up all around them. So much is going on! So much to be part of!
Though specific in its period references — the musical choices in particular are fresh and precise — this movie is much more than an exercise in nostalgia for those storied old days, when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker, Orson Welles bestrode the boards of the Mercury Theater and Brooks Atkinson reviewed plays for The New York Times.
Instead, “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater, with a screenplay (from Robert Kaplow’s novel) by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, pays tribute to youthful creative ambition where and whenever it may thrive. The story of a teenager’s sometimes uncomfortable brush with greatness, it is necessary viewing for anyone whose imagination has been seduced by the charms of art.
Which can be a painful, disillusioning experience as well as a source of exhilaration. This, at any rate, is what Richard, Mr. Efron’s character, discovers when he stumbles into the Mercury’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by a bombastic young fellow who lends his name to the film’s title and to so much else besides. “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane” are still in the future, as are the triumphs and brutal disappointments of Welles’s postwar career, but the ego and the brilliance are in full blossom.
They are captured, with a brio and wit that puts most biopic mummery to shame, by Christian McKay, a British actor with a slender résumé and superhuman confidence. His evident relish in the dimensions of this role is a crucial part of the performance. It’s so much fun to play Orson Welles because it must have been at least as much fun to be Orson Welles.
Though perhaps not to work with him. “Me and Orson Welles” spends most of its time backstage at the Mercury, as the cast and crew struggle and stumble toward opening night, alternately buoyed and sandbagged by their resident genius, who is not shy about reminding the company members that they are servants to his vision. He showers them with hyperbolic praise — seeing “images of magnificence” in every actor’s eyes — and then crushes them with brutal criticism.
His loyal partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), endures it all with amused resignation. The others humor Welles, complain about him, try to compete with him or go to bed with him. They are supporting players in the grand drama of his personality. The only peer he might recognize on the set of “Julius Caesar” is Shakespeare himself.
In that production Welles played Brutus — a complicated character, both noble and treacherous. And “Me and Orson Welles” shows him in similarly shaded light, illuminating both his talent and his caddishness. Best of all, the movie allows us to glimpse enough of the rehearsal and performance to see just why the Mercury “Caesar” was a milestone in the history of the modern theater.
Art is glorious. The making of art less so. Richard, cast almost by accident in a minor role, learns some hard lessons about the ways of show folk, for whom sincerity is a higher form of pretending. He befriends Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), marvels at George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), the high-strung British actor playing Mark Antony, and falls in love with Sonja (Claire Danes), who manages the Mercury and dreams of meeting David O. Selznick.
Sonja is both ingénue and woman of the world, at once a servant of the muse and a calculating careerist, and Ms. Danes is nimble, likable and smart — words that describe the movie itself. While Mr. Efron may not conjure images of magnificence, he does well as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and affable adventurer in the enchanted realm of the theater.
Disenchantment is part of the magic, and “Me and Orson Welles” strikes a persuasive balance between naïveté and cynicism, both of which are necessary to the theatrical enterprise. Art is a fairy tale we choose to believe in, and this movie, a fiction confected about real people, is too good not to be true.
“Me and Orson Welles” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some profanity and adult situations.
ME AND ORSON WELLES
Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Richard Linklater; written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Sandra Adair; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Mr. Linklater, Marc Samuelson and Ann Carli; released by CinemaNX and Detour Filmproduction. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
WITH: Zac Efron (Richard Samuels/Lucius), Claire Danes (Sonja Jones), Christian McKay (Orson Welles/Brutus), Ben Chaplin (George Coulouris/Mark Antony), Zoe Kazan (Gretta Adler), Eddie Marsan (John Houseman), Kelly Reilly (Muriel Brassler/Portia) and James Tupper (Joseph Cotten/Publius).