Me and Orson Welles
2009, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Tupper, Leo Bill.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 11, 2009
A gummy opening introduces the “me” in this boy-meets-boy period comedy: He is Richard Samuels (Efron), a dreamy-eyed Jersey high schooler who quite literally stumbles into the part of his life, as a walk-on in the New York theatrical production of Julius Caesar, Orson Welles’ barn-burning 1937 debut production for his Mercury Theatre troupe. Richard meets the ragtag company on the street just outside the newly erected marquee; a cymbal wheels down the sidewalk – an impish image from director Linklater, who’s clearly having fun here – and then Orson Welles (McKay) enters stage left, with a mirroring crash boom siss. Richard, light on his feet, talks his way into Welles’ production; Welles, only 22 and admiring of anyone with pluck (so long as said pluck doesn't steal from his own spotlight), takes a liking to the kid. Everybody does, really, from Welles’ harried Mercury co-founder, John Houseman (Marsan), and longtime friend and collaborator Joseph Cotten (Tupper, a little too bearish) on down to the sparky office assistant, Sonja (Danes), under whose tutelage Richard’s education becomes, er, a little more well-rounded. That Welles and Richard will soon tussle over Sonja plays somewhat improbably, but no matter: By the time that particular plot point comes around, the script – by Austinites Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (based on the novel by Robert Kaplow) – is well past its pokey first pages, and Linklater’s film has already put us thoroughly in its pocket. In part – in large part, I should say – credit goes to McKay. He’s maybe more kind-eyed, more slack-jawed than the youthful Welles, but I’m not sure megalomania has ever been played so irresistibly on the screen. One imagines the British actor broke a sweat trying to break this character, but it doesn’t show: His performance seems effortless, so commanding is it, careening from cocksure boy genius to bellowing, beleaguered director to ice-in-his-veins slayer of baby dragons such as disposable actors and mewling rival suitors (the bigger dragons, Welles' fraught Hollywood career would later prove, would be more difficult). Efron, a young actor best known for his breakout role in the High School Musical juggernaut, brings a lively physicality to the film, but it’s a tricky part: Richard may be trying to find himself, but the audience is simply trying to find a rough psychological sketch of the guy. Efron is not yet a sophisticated enough actor to distinguish unformed from merely vague but what he does convey, rather winningly, is a kind of puppyish enthusiasm that is infectious. Just as Richard excitably reacts to the production in progress, so do we, and Linklater brings an almost tactile quality to the staging and shooting of the play (spittle in the back light, who knew you could be so pretty?). In his first narrative, nonanimated feature since 2006's ambitious but tractionless Fast Food Nation, Linklater has crafted an always genial and at times even joyful period charmer about that moment on the cusp: before a boy becomes a man and another man becomes a mythological figure. (For more on the film, see "On His Mark," Dec. 11.)