Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is a jazzy, fast-paced, high-spirited theatrical romp, the kind of backstage tale that Hollywood used to crank out every other week, only this time with the real names and most of the good, ribald stories left in. The "me" of the title is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), and he is a fictional character; the film is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. But just because it's fiction doesn't mean it isn't truthful. It is based on upon a real turning point in Welles' life and career: the Mercury Theater's modern-dress staging of Julius Caesar.
But Richard is our audience surrogate; a stage-crazy high school kid from the suburbs who inadvertently talks his way into a minor role in Caesar a week before opening night. A pretty production assistant (Claire Danes) is assigned to help the kid learn his lines, and a bit of a spark develops. Meanwhile, Welles (Christian McKay) seems intent to push his cast and crew to the limit--the frantic final week features plenty of incomplete rehearsals and temper tantrums, in addition to the company's primary activity: "waiting for Orson."
The screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. ballsily presumes that we know who Welles and the Mercury were, and thank God for that; while the Efron target audience may be clueless, I appreciated not having to sit through an endless text crawl at the top of the picture. Enough exposition is cleverly smuggled into the dialogue; the specifics aren't necessarily important. That said, the picture goes to remarkable (and admirable) lengths to get the specifics of the production right; it is, as far as I can tell, exactly as described in countless Welles biographies (particularly in Simon Callow's indispensable The Road to Xanadu). As a Welles fan, it is a real treat to see those legendary stories brought to vivid, breathing life. For example, he was playing "The Shadow" and other radio roles at the time, to help finance the Mercury; in order to fulfill those obligations but spend as little time as possible away from his theater, he'd take an ambulance across town to the radio studio and waltz in moments before show time, performing (brilliantly) without rehearsal.
McKay is the film's breakout star; he's flat-out phenomenal as Welles, not only nailing the great one's physicality and speaking voice, but his zestful energy and intensity. He encompasses the personality of the man without succumbing to mere impression. The script is a keen psychological study of the man, in his specific actions and dialogue (like his wonderful speech about why he loves to act--"If people can't find you, they can't dislike you"), his relationships (particularly with the much-abused John Houseman), and his overall disposition. Caesar was a great play that came together at the last possible second; the more you read about Welles, the more frequently you'll find that he waited until that last second, sometimes for no good reason. What kind of man continuously subjects himself to that kind of pressure? And what happens when the eleventh-hour miracles don't come?
The picture is also an astute examination of hero worship--as Richard finds out, there's no lift like praise from someone you consider great, and no crushing defeat like finding out they're a sonofabitch. The movie understands that, though I'm not quite certain Efron does. He's a likeable and charismatic presence, but a bit of a cipher here; there's something dead in his pretty blue eyes, and too many of his line readings are wooden. There's not enough fire in his belly, and though Daines is engaging, their romance is a bit of a non-starter. Frankly, his sweet, honest relationship with a slightly neurotic writer (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan) plays much more entertainingly.
But enough of that. The film is beautifully made, full of impressively detailed costume and scenic design and expressive but controlled camerawork (by Mike Leigh's favorite cinematographer, Dick Pope), and director Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) brings it to a perfect conclusion, with an exquisite recreation of the show's opening night that is absolutely thrilling to watch. Me and Orson Welles is an enjoyable throwback, and a skilled portrait. But its best quality is its enthusiasm; it feeds off the energy, the passion, and the creativity of its characters, all young and full of ideas, ready to take on the world. At the picture's end, Richard isn't sure what specifically he wants to do with his life, but he knows what he loves: "Whatever it is--writing, acting, music plays--I want to be a part of it all." Linklater's wonderful movie knows that feeling from the inside out. It is a picture of pure enjoyment.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.