Seventeen-year-old Richard Samuels may be daydreaming, hoping for release from the stultifying high school English class that’s now taking up Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It must be a dream, but the Jewish boy finds himself, on a Manhattan street, hired by Orson Welles to play Lucius, Brutus’s page, in the actual 1937 Mercury Theatre production of the play, scheduled to open in a week. Richard is replacing an actor whom Welles fired for contesting his authority. As Joe Cotten, a member of the company, will later explain, “Orson must always be right.”
The same-titled novel on which Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is based was written by Robert Kaplow, a New Jersey high school film and English teacher. In the film, there’s no possibility that Richard is daydreaming; indeed, everything in it is exceedingly literal. As a result, the whole thing ends vaguely, with the self-importance of an outdoors overhead long-shot, with people the size of ants way below, masking this vagueness. Nor does the circular dream-possibility weigh in that the boy whom Richard replaces as Lucius is somehow himself. Vincent Palmo Jr. and Holly Gent Palmo wrote the script.
Otherwise, Linklater has directed well, with a montage of scenes vividly conveying the anti-fascist air of the legendary modern-dress, 90-minute Julius Caesar, which Welles relocated from ancient Rome to Mussolini’s Italy. After the opening-night audience rises to its feet in thunderous applause following the performance, Welles wonders aloud: “How am I going to top this?” On radio, with War of the Worlds perhaps? In cinema, with Citizen Kane?
Zac Efron is close to sensational as Richard, whom Welles calls “Junior,” partly to keep himself from dwelling anxiously on his own youth. (Welles was 22 at the time.) For most of the film Efron strikes one note; but how wonderful a note! When Richard’s breezy confidence takes a darker turn, deeper colors come sprinkling in—especially regarding Richard’s opposing Welles on the matter of Welles’s on-the-make production assistant, Sonja Jones, whom Richard mistakes for his girlfriend after a single night of sex (his first, it seems). Ben Chaplin is also good, as George Coulouris, who, according to this fantasy, desperately needs Welles’s reassurance backstage on opening night—perhaps to tweak the seeming self-certainty of Coulouris’s most brilliant roles (in Citizen Kane, Watch on the Rhine, None But the Lonely Heart). Overall, much of the film is indeed funny.
And no one is funnier than Christian McKay’s egomaniacal Welles; although McKay is a dozen years too old to play this early incarnation of Welles, the Brit had fine-tuned his convincing impersonation onstage in his 2004 one-man show, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles. Moreover, McKay achieves late in the film a haunting moment suggesting Welles’s tragic self-awareness. The San Francisco critics named McKay the year’s best supporting actor.
Still, be prepared: Welles had not yet become the Orson Welles we all dearly love.
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