Around town with a young Welles

Christian McKay (left) is Orson Welles and Zac Efron is the high schooler who lands a role in Welles' production of "Julius Caesar."
Christian McKay (left) is Orson Welles and Zac Efron is the high schooler who lands a role in Welles' production of "Julius Caesar."
Posted: December 11, 2009

Full of bluster, bluffery, and - yes - brilliance, the Orson Welles of Me and Orson Welles, played by the remarkable Christian McKay, is a charismatic megalomanic bent on turning his fledgling troupe, the Mercury, into the artistic force of New York theater. It is 1937, Citizen Kane is not yet a gleam in Welles' eye, but the man is clearly a genius.

At least, as far as he's concerned.

The "me" in Richard Linklater's terrifically fun, spirited reimagining of Welles' early creative days is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high schooler (of course) who loves the theater and who, by luck, pluck, and the lie that he can play banjo, lands a small role in the Mercury's production of Julius Caesar. Such is the premise of Robert Kaplow's novel: that a teenager tumbles into this historic moment, among this gang of legendary thespians (John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd), and experiences the head-spinning juggernaut first-hand - a hatchling's-eye-view.

A love letter to the world of theater - to its tyrants and tyros, to the set-builders, costumers, stars, and scribes - Linklater's film adaptation succeeds in bringing the flamboyant Welles to life, without resorting to caricature (although a few vintage Al Hirschfelds adorn the walls). This is due in no small part to McKay, an English actor who has portrayed Welles in a one-man show but whose affinity for his subject goes deeper, and broader, than mere mimicry. His is, in short, an exhilarating performance.

As the wet-behind-the-ears Richard accompanies Welles around town (he prefers ambulance over taxi, it's quicker), the boy sees the man at his best and worst: radically repurposing Shakespeare to serve as allegory for fascism's rise; cheating on his pregnant wife with his leading lady - and with the front office girl, too.

That would be Claire Danes, playing the sage, seductive Sonja Jones. And Welles isn't the only one with his eye on her. Me and Orson Welles is, on one level, a coming-of-age tale, and lucky Richard gets to come of age in the charming company of the self-possessed Miss Jones.

As for Efron, the High School Musical star acquits himself well in such stellar company. He, too, looks as if he's enjoying himself immensely.

Linklater's filmography runs from indie minimalism (Slacker, Before Sunrise) to experimental animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) to straightforward Hollywood entertainments (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). Me and Orson Welles is something else: unabashedly old-fashioned in mood and manner, it's a retro period piece that lives comfortably within its own theatrical confines. No one's going to mistake Linklater's 1930s New York for the real thing (in fact, the movie was shot on soundstages on the Isle of Man), but the place it evokes is one that's satisfyingly familiar in its art, and its artifice.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his

blog, "On Movies Online,"' at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

onmovies/

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