Full of bluster, bluffery and – yes – brilliance, the Orson Welles of “Me and Orson Welles” is a charismatic megalomanic bent on turning his fledgling troupe, the Mercury, into the artistic force of New York theater.
It is 1937, “Citizen Kane” is not yet a gleam in Welles’ eye, but the man is clearly a genius. At least, as far as he’s concerned.
The “me” in Richard Linklater’s terrifically fun, spirited reimagining of Welles’ early creative days is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, “High School Musical”), a teenager who loves the theater and who, by luck, pluck, and the lie that he can play banjo, lands a small role in the Mercury’s production of “Julius Caesar.”
A love letter to the world of theater, Linklater’s film adaptation succeeds in bringing the flamboyant Welles to life, without resorting to caricature.
This is due in no small part to the remarkable Christian McKay, an English actor who has portrayed Welles in a one-man show but whose affinity for his subject goes deeper, and broader, than mere mimicry. His is, in short, an exhilarating performance.
As the wet-behind-the-ears Richard accompanies Welles around town, he sees the man at his best and worst: radically repurposing Shakespeare to serve as allegory for fascism’s rise; cheating on his pregnant wife with his leading lady – and with the front office girl, too.
That would be Claire Danes, playing the sage, seductive Sonja Jones. And Welles isn’t the only one with his eye on her.
“Me and Orson Welles” is, on one level, a coming-of-age tale, and lucky Richard gets to come of age in the charming company of the self-possessed Miss Jones.
No one’s going to mistake Linklater’s 1930s New York for the real thing (in fact, the movie was shot on soundstages on the Isle of Man), but the place it evokes is one that’s satisfyingly familiar in its art, and its artifice.
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