In the High School Musical movies, Zac Efron has a Pied Piper-like effect on his classmates, who always fall behind him in perfectly choreographed song-and-dance numbers. If there's any justice, Efron will cast the same spell over his fan base and entice teenyboppers to line up in lockstep for the effervescent new film Me and Orson Welles. Today's Tweeting teens could use a course in the old-school pleasures of Shakespeare, live radio, and one of cinema's most prodigious talents.
As Richard Samuels, Efron plays another high schooler with musical-theater chops, only in New York of 1937. Richard's love of the arts and his own ambitions inspire him to read memoirs by the likes of John Gielgud and haunt music stores for the latest hit by Cole Porter. One fateful afternoon, Richard sidles up to a Broadway crowd gathered in front of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and, within minutes, secures a small part in Julius Caesar thanks to dumb luck and smart positioning.
A role in the Mercury's Caesar, set in contemporary, Mussolini-era Italy, could make Richard's career – assuming the theater doesn't shut down first. The naïve young actor steps into a whirlwind of beauty-obsessed divas, disrespected comedians, dignified stagehands and the hissy fits of John Houseman (Happy-Go-Lucky's Eddie Marsan), who tries to keep the company from becoming a shambles. None of these glittering neurotics can compete with Welles himself (Christian McKay), a national radio star whose artistic genius is only eclipsed by his tyrannical behavior. Richard finds an ally in bright, pretty assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), but also faces intimidating rivals as he tries to romance her.
Me and Orson Welles takes place over a breathless week in Richard's life. Filmmaker Richard Linklater, director of Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, again shows his insights in young people and creative communities at turning points. Me and Orson Welles offers Linklater's most rousing, fast-paced tale to date. Where recent period comedies such as Easy Virtue strained to capture the effortless wit of the era, Linklater succeeds by emphasizing pell-mell speed and persuasive characterizations. Supporting actors such as Leo Bill's frizzy-haired Norman Lloyd look and sound exactly like Depression-era bit players.
Danes works a little too hard to sell Sonja's chatty vivaciousness, while Efron doesn't truly capture the moxie of his character as written. Nevertheless, McKay proves more than capable of carrying the film on his own. The little-known English stage actor nails Welles' voice – sonorous purr one moment, thunderclap the next. More crucially, he conveys Welles' sheer magnetism, a quality missing from the impersonations in films like Cradle Will Rock or RKO 281. McKay delivers a Welles capable of dwarfing his Shakespearean roles, a man whose drive to perform extends from off-the-cuff magic tricks to the highest imaginable stagecraft.
Based on Robert Kaplow's novel, the script includes loving references to Welles' later film work, including Chimes at Midnight, The Magnificent Ambersons and his famous entrance in The Third Man. It subtly hints that his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, contained elements of Welles' personal problems. Me and Orson Welles is no love letter, though, and suggests that Welles' virtues and flaws were all of a piece. His hunger for adulation makes him a serial adulterer with women and a bullying alpha male with potential challengers. He charms people to their faces and betrays them an instant later. His bombast, his bullshit, his claims of credit for the work of others all spring from his relentless showmanship and a need to live up to his genius.
Welles was even more of an enfant terrible than the film makes him out to be. At the time of Julius Caesar, he was a baby-faced 22 year-old. McKay is 15 years older, and looks it. You can forgive the film this inconsistency, however. In his early 20s, Welles had done more than most people accomplish their entire lives. The High School Musica generation should consider his example and heed the words of another of Shakespeare's plays: "We who are young will never see so much, nor live so long."