It won’t be for this pleasant bauble — and there’s no way to tell exactly for what it will be, given his varied filmography — but Richard Linklater will eventually win an Academy Award. The Texas-born indie auteur brings to bear his characteristically spry touch to yet another very different sort of movie than he’s done before in the lively Me and Orson Welles, a romantic coming-of-age story set in 1937.
Rooted in real theatrical history, the film is about a fictionalized teenage actor, Richard (Zac Efron, a bit out of his element), who lucks into a small role in a re-imagined Julius Caesar being helmed by a brilliant, impetuous young director named Orson Welles at his newly founded Mercury Theater in New York City. The rollercoaster week leading up to opening night has the charismatic but frequently cruel Welles (an amazing Christian McKay, above) staking his career on this risky production, while Richard mixes with everyone from starlets to stagehands in behind-the-scenes adventures bound to change him. Caught up in an unlikely love triangle is Sonja (Claire Danes), the unapologetically ambitious assistant to Welles whom Richard tries to woo.
The fast-moving screenplay is adapted from Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel of the same name, and it offers up plenty of towel-snapping dialogue and amusing details, like Welles using ambulances as taxis, just because they’re able to navigate through traffic faster. Meanwhile, McKay nails Welles’ sonorous voice, as well as his seductive charm, humor and ego. When he first appears on screen you’re struck by the feeling that he’s too actively playing a capital-C character, in forward-leaning fashion. Then one comes to slowly realize, well… that’s exactly what Welles was doing, for much of his public career, and certainly here, in his early days. So that’s part of the genius of McKay’s performance — the sense that he’s an actor playing another actor who’s playing always another character, and then sometimes also a role in his own staged play. The only nagging problem is that the film’s Richard-Sonja romance utterly doesn’t play. Much more intriguing is Zoe Kazan as an aspirant writer whom Richard haphazardly befriends; you wish she’d wander into the Mercury Theater and boot Danes’ character to the side.
Welles at one point delivers a soliloquy in which he comments on someone’s “bone-deep understanding that existence is so without meaning that one must reinvent self,” and while Linklater’s canon is anything but nihilistic, his credits are so diverse as to seemingly underscore an offscreen appreciation of that sentiment. (Freestyle Releasing, PG-13, 113 minutes)