As an icon prone to caricature, Orson Welles ranks right up there with Truman Capote and Ray Charles.
But in "Me and Orson Welles," our view of the great, charismatic director and thespian isn't straight on, but a sideways glance. We see him from the perspective of an aspiring teenager, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who lands a bit part in Welles' 1937 production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theatre in New York.
Welles, then only 22, had just begun to make a name for himself on radio and on stage with his "Voodoo Macbeth," which he set in Haiti. His "Caesar" — "a lean, brutal 'Caesar,'" as he calls it in the film, set in contemporary Fascist Italy — was a sensation. Welles would soon after begin work on "Citizen Kane."
Fame was imminent and Welles knew it.
Christian McKay, a previously unknown British theater actor, plays Welles in Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," and he clearly has the part down pat — the ever-shifting eyebrows, the sonorous, arch baritone, the "old man." McKay's Welles is arresting in its accuracy, though at a certain point its polish keeps Welles under a sheen.
He does, though, convey Welles' mix of genius and — like his "Caesar" — his brutality. He commands his theater company just as he commands our attention. He is enthralled by creation and reinvention, and has little patience for the "agents to his vision."
The lowliest of those agents is Richard, the "Me" of the title. In just one day, he manages to skip away from high school in New Jersey, chat up two attractive girls, impress Welles enough to land a role in "Caesar," and learn how to pay the ukulele. Fans of Efron ("High School Musical," "17 Again") may wonder just what teenybopper optimism can't accomplish?
Richard's path in life is unsure, but he passionately wants to be around theater, movies and music. It's a picture of the artist as a young heartthrob.
Efron has an easy, natural presence on screen and his performance is effortless and confident. But it also doesn't carry much weight, and the biggest problem for "Me and Orson Welles" is that when McKay fades from view and Efron is left to carry the film, it feels slight.
But much of what Linklater has crafted is substantial. The director ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunset," "Waking Life") has a particular talent in chronicling coming-of-age stories and romances with equally levelheaded naturalism. In this case, the romance is with theater, or more generally, the creation of art.
"Me and Orson Welles" cherishes ramshackle rehearsals and backstage banter. Linklater brings out the inner dynamics of the company: Welles placating the ego of his Antony, George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), arguing with his producer and partner John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), worrying about theater superstitions, like that a bad thing must happen before opening night ("some malevolent spirit must be exorcised," intones Welles).
Just before the curtain rises, Welles tells his cast: "Make 'em sweat" — and one wishes Linklater's film had just a little of the same urgency and aspiration.
The wide-eyed Richard — "Junior" to Welles — takes it all in like a fly on the wall. He falls in with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a young aspiring actress working as an assistant to Welles.
Like many in the film, she's bristling with ambition. Dreaming of a career in Hollywood, she's angling to meet producer David O. Selznick — a goal that will easily supersede any relationship that develops between her and Richard.
"Me and Orson Welles" is based on the historical fiction novel by Robert Kaplow. Though the backdrop of Welles and his theater company is based on history, Richard's story is wholly imagined.
The production design by Laurence Dorman is excellent. Though the New York exteriors resemble the fake-looking studio facades of something like "Newsies," the inside of the Mercury Theater — where most of the film takes place — feels true.
Ultimately, "Me and Orson Welles" is about a life-changing brush with fame, a brief moment in time with a swelling star — and the presumed, lasting influence of witnessing the thrill of an artistic life. It doesn't have anything close to the heft of Welles, but it's snappy enough that it might have conjured a wry smile or two from the old man.