Linklater Revives Theater History in Vivacious 'Me and Orson Welles'

Photo: <b>Magical theater.</b> Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels and Christian McKay plays Orson Welles in director Richard Linklater's 'Me and Orson Welles.'
Liam Daniel/Courtesy
Magical theater. Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels and Christian McKay plays Orson Welles in director Richard Linklater's 'Me and Orson Welles.'

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"When I look in your eyes, I see images of magnificence." Gripping his distraught actor in a firm vise minutes before opening night, Orson Welles (Christian McKay) exudes towering inspiration. The theater maestro and future cinematic hall-of-famer was only 22 when he helmed the Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," by many accounts the most groundbreaking stage feat of its day. The magic of Welles' virtuosity--and of theater itself--saturates every minute of director Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," a breezy love letter to the creative process whose charm proves irresistible.

Opening on gaudy shades of New York City in 1937, the film explores Welles' achievement through the eyes of fictional Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a 17-year-old high school student with theatrical aspirations. Briskly walking along 41st Street after a serendipitous encounter with aspiring writer Gretta (Zoe Kazan), Richard saunters into an even more fortuitous boon: He lands the minor part of Lucius in Welles' upcoming stage adaptation of "Julius Caesar." In a matter of minutes, we are immersed into a world that brims with creative energy, filled with characters mourning Gershwin, worshiping Shakespeare and reciting Keats in front of Grecian urns.

Bombastic, arrogant, domineering, imperious and utterly brilliant, Welles cuts an imposing figure among his peers. He demands nothing but perfection from every member of his troupe, unleashing his dictatorial fury on them if they fail to meet his lofty standards. "You're not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit," cautions Welles' assistant Sonja (Claire Danes). The truth of the matter does little to bridle Richard's enthusiasm, as he develops rich friendships with several cast members and attempts to court the older Sonja to mixed results.

As envisioned by Linklater, theater life takes on a joyous dimension of its own. Cinematographer Dick Pope ("Secrets & Lies," "Vera Drake") captures both the bustling exteriors and lively interiors of 1930s New York, the period atmosphere heightened by the saccharine sounds of Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington. Eye-opening technical feats abound: cleverly staged long takes at a radio rehearsal and late-night dinner party, culminating in Linklater's recreation of Welles' historical opening night in all its stark glory.

While McKay's barnstorming embodiment of Welles is undoubtedly the film's enduring highlight, Efron's merits an honorable mention. Blessed with charismatic old-school appeal, the "High School Musical" heartthrob conjures visions of a young Tyrone Power or Alain Delon in his first serious film role. His performance as the callow yet headstrong Richard isn't the most remarkable role on the bill, but it serves as a wellspring for the film's allure. "Me and Orson Welles," after all, is first and foremost a coming-of-age story, and Efron's innocent virtue successfully complements the seasoned ambition of his co-stars.

In a year teeming with Depression-era dramas of varying ambitions and agendas--Mira Nair's dreary "Amelia" and Michael Mann's exhilarating "Public Enemies" among the more notable entries--Linklater's film wisely and wittily sidesteps the period's drabness in favor of its endless promise. There is scarcely any trace of gloom or wartime anxiety in the film, and it's all the more fitting in context: This Orson Welles, high on the thunderous success of the opening night of "Julius Caesar," can hardly imagine topping himself.

No matter. "Me and Orson Welles" successfully breathes life into a lost moment in history, and its status as a labor of love is never more evident than in the film's final sequence. As Richard reunites with Gretta, fresh off the most memorable week of his life, a bird's-eye shot reveals New York in all its luminous allure. In Linklater's universe, autumn feels eternal.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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