The devious art of grand theft movie is always a delight to witness. Walking into “Me and Orson Welles,” I was expecting a benevolent coming-of-age tale, using star Zac Efron’s dewy looks and immaculate representation of adolescent earnestness to carry the film to heartening results. But then in walked actor Christian McKay, who delivers such an immaculate impression and summarization of Orson Welles, it makes the rest of the cast and the humdrum melodrama feel like they’re blocking the view.
17-year-old Richard (Zac Efron) is a teenager with big dreams. Skipping school to make a mark on the New York City theater scene in 1937, Richard comes into contact with Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his legendary Mercury Theater, about to stage a landmark production of “Julius Caesar.” Nabbing a small supporting role, Richard is allowed entrance into the world of Welles, watching the self-absorbed man work his booming personality to both encourage and humiliate his cast and crew. Finding solace in the arms of production assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), Richard endures a specifically brutal education on life and love that could only originate from the toxic airspace around Orson Welles.
Director Richard Linklater should be applauded for his versatility and his gift with ensembles; while “Me and Orson Welles” only tenders a kitten-sized emotional impact by the final reel, Linklater puts on quite a show as the story moves along, evoking a crystalline portrait of Broadway during New York’s most fertile creative years. With little in the way of a budget, the production manages to capture a spirited time and place, finding the right pop tone of snappy rapport and wide-eyed wonder, as Richard receives a crash course on experience during his mere weeks of citizenship. Clearly, the theatrical focus owns the film, but Linklater finds time for a few other subplots to make their minor impressions, including a devil-may-care affair between Richard and Sonja, which reveals just how emotionally undeveloped the budding thespian truly is.
While Richard does find his footing with the disgruntled Mercury players, the rest of the picture is steamrolled by McKay’s frighteningly accurate read of Orson Welles’s bipolar hailstorm personality. The ultimate egotist, actor, womanizer, and director, Welles is the runaway Mack truck that slams into Richard, teaching the boy not only about acting, but the limits of trust in the professional realm.
From the timbre of his voice to the curl of his hair, McKay simply is Welles. It’s an astonishing facsimile of the legendary man, but the performance is not limited to simple, one-note mimicry. McKay reaches into the belly of Welles to snatch rare instances of vulnerability and, more often, cruelty, breathing fire as Welles smashes down anyone who dare challenge his authority. The camera can’t peel itself away from the performance, which is without doubt one of the most exciting of this film year. It’s worth the price of a ticket just to see Welles alive again, foaming at the mouth, prowling the stage, and dishing up virulent witticisms with Tommy Gun timing.
Richard’s arc in “Me and Orson Welles” is not one of starry-eyed hero worship, which is perhaps a more interesting idea to chew on when interpreting the growing pain clichés that devour the film in the last act. The young, trembling actor is more terrified of Welles than devoted, making their relationship agreeably complex as the screenwriting heads the opposite route, shunning more contemplative snapshots of hurried maturity. “Me and Orson Welles” struggles to encapsulate the many trials and tribulations of youth, but its heart remains on the stage, reveling in the fury of a brilliant control freak, existing in a bubble of showbiz flirtations and deceptions. With Orson Welles stomping around, who really cares about an inhibited teenager?