You never really know why high school senior Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) wants so badly to be in the theater. Me and Orson Welles offers no scenes of him struggling mightily to get there, or being harassed by his parents to take something, anything, seriously so that he might be able to have a career some day. He just knows that his unnamed and mostly unseen hometown, just a quick train ride from the beaming spotlight of Manhattan, has nothing for him. But once we see Richard enmeshed in an all-consuming and all-too-brief adventure, there’s also no reason to ask why he desires it so powerfully. Anybody who would need such a question answered in detail, likely wouldn’t understand the answer anyway.
Adapted with middling fidelity from Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is a fresh breeze of a film that does its best to avoid such mundane complications as these. Set in a 1937 New York that’s all bustling sidewalks, verdant parks, and Gershwin tunes (on those few occasions when it steps outside the darkened theater), the film starts with fresh-faced Richard riding the train into Manhattan and stumbling across the Mercury Theater troupe as they’re arguing over their upcoming production of Julius Caesar, directed by and starring Orson Welles (Christian McKay). A few minutes later, after having impressed Welles with his sketchy vaudeville talents (he can handle a drum-roll and carry a tune), Richard is cast as Lucius, a small part that requires him to strum a lute (actually a modified ukulele) and sing to Welles’ Brutus.
Normally this is the kind of setup that would set your eyes rolling, but the explosively chaotic hugger-mugger that was the Mercury Theater meant that everything is in flux until the absolute last minute—a perfect situation for a kid who happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Richard, Efron presents a well-calibrated blend of confidence and naïveté that allows him to slip past the gatekeepers at this rogue operation while also avoiding (for the most part) the thunderous bolts of displeasure that the bombastic Welles hurls about him.
Though his hair is a touch too floppy for the times, and his singing voice also doesn’t quite ring true to the era’s style, Efron brings a canny quality that’s a shade or two darker than his earlier teenybopper roles, a bright kid figuring out how to be on the make and learning from the best. He gets schooled in the art of picking up actresses by a louche Joseph Cotton (the excellent James Tupper) and starts romancing the company’s office girl, a pert operator named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). She appreciates Richard’s energy, and seems like him after a few years in the business: attractive, talented, slightly wiser, and still hustling hard for that big break.
But ultimately everybody on screen serves to support the story’s raison d’être: Welles. Although at this time Welles was only 23 years old, as embodied by the brilliant British actor McKay, he could well be two decades the senior of Richard and Sophie, given the mountain of self-assurance he hauls around with him. Dashing into the theater in between his frequent radio gigs, Welles is the manic genius on full display. Building up and tearing his play down, often in the same moment, and then running off again before any real work gets done, he’s the frantic artist whose inconsistencies must be suffered by a terrorized cast and his eternally flabbergasted manager and collaborator, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
McKay’s embodiment of Welles is fiercely theatrical and oversized, as it should be. He can’t quite nail Welles’ roiling bass of a voice, that sublime instrument which kept him fitfully employed for decades, even after burning more bridges in the industry than many knew even existed. But in almost every other instance, from his wickedly boyish half-smile to quick flashes of temper, he’s the multi-talented maestro.
Me and Orson Welles is a broadly drawn and artificial, except where it counts. Viewers won’t see any more of the actual New York of the late-1930s on screen here than they would in a Broadway musical from the same period. (It was mostly created on soundstages in England, a pretense that a faker like Welles would have approved.) And Richard’s dramatic arc bears fairly little resemblance to what actually happened to Arthur Anderson, the real-life inspiration for Kaplow’s novel (for starters, Anderson was 15 when he got the role as Lucius, and knew Welles from before). But where it matters, this is a film that hits the right buttons.
For one, what we see of Julius Caesar is a thing of savage beauty. From the stunningly swift and violent staging of the mob lynching of Cinna the poet (Leo Bill, bringing a nervy shock to the part) to the production’s stark black colors and avant-garde lighting, the staging leaves no question as to why this would have struck a chord with audiences all too aware of the fascist threat building across the Atlantic. (Welles would strike the same chord the following year with his infamously panic-sparking War of the Worlds broadcast.) For all the romantic drama that swirls around the play, three-quarters of a decade on, what Linklater reconstructs of the production process here still has sting.