An extraordinary impersonation of the American theatrical boy wonder by the young English actor Christian McKay is the indisputable highlight of “Me and Orson Welles,” an agreeable, reasonably convincing imagining of the circumstances surrounding Welles’ legendary staging of “Julius Caesar.” Another let’s-put-on-a-show venture for Zac Efron, albeit of a rather more sophisticated variety, this British-produced period piece will test how much the “High School Musical” star means as a movie name. Richard Linklater’s amiable entertainment will likely score OK numbers theatrically, with a nice ancillary life awaiting.
Script by longtime Linklater associates Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo closely adheres to the contours of Robert Kaplow’s novel, which drops a fictional, theater-crazed 17-year-old into the final week of rehearsals of Welles’ vaunted 1937 modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play. Aside from the kid, Kaplow’s work was a thoroughly researched account that provided a plausible feel for what it might have been like during those final crazy days before the opening.
Linklater absolutely honors that fidelity to theater history, involving such affiliated figures as John Houseman, Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd in the drama and creating a credible look for scenes from the Mercury Theater’s “Caesar” production itself, no small accomplishment.
The perspective on these momentous days in theater lore is provided by Richard Samuels (Efron), a high school student who, after a chance sidewalk encounter, is asked by Welles to play the small role of Lucius. Ambitious can-do assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) warms to Richard quickly, while Welles sweeps him into his orbit by taking him, by speeding ambulance, to one of his day jobs, where he dazzles all by improvising during a live-theater broadcast.
It’s a heady world Richard has landed in. At a mere 22, Welles had just recently served notice of his brilliance with his all-black production of “Macbeth” in Harlem, and he and Houseman (Eddie Marsan), with whom he bickers here constantly, are intent on making theatrical history with the Mercury show. Early on, Richard is warned never to criticize the boss, and told he’ll have to tolerate lots of bad behavior in exchange for the the privilege of basking in genius.
The somewhat unlikely personal plot has Richard becoming involved with older woman Sonja, the “ice queen” who’s the object of unrequited lust for every man in the company, including ladies’ man Cotten (James Tupper), then exploding when he feels betrayed by Welles. But the immature boy inevitably takes a back seat to Welles himself, especially when he’s represented as uncannily as he is by McKay.
McKay, who previously portrayed the big man in the stage piece “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles,” has very much the right look for Welles at that time. More crucially, he can reproduce the sonorous vocal timbre. Best of all, he precisely catches Welles’ humor, with arched eyebrow, ironic sense of amusement and mocking self-modesty.
This Welles permits just one fleeting glimpse of his inner self, when he shows Richard his marked-up copy of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Otherwise, he consists of one part intimidating bluster, two parts seductive charm and three parts talent, and there are moments, especially when Welles is alternating between acting as Brutus and directing everyone else, that it’s possible to forget you’re watching an actor and really believe you’re beholding Orson Welles at work. At one point it seemed, on the basis of five minutes in “Ed Wood,” that the only actor who could convincingly portray Welles was Vincent D’Onofrio. Now McKay’s got the job whenever there’s call for it.
Shot in the unlikely setting of the Isle of Man, notably in its restored Gaiety Theater, which fills in beautifully, and London, pic does a reasonable job of repping Depression-era Gotham on a budget. But the film, and the comic moments in particular, could have used more snap, some real New York energy. There’s too much spare time for dates and private encounters during the mad run-up to opening night; the novel’s frantic, sweaty-palms sense of nerves is lacking here.
Although he’s adequate, Efron never feels like a proper fit for Richard. The handsome thesp is too self-possessed and sure of himself for a teenage interloper in the big time; he lacks uncertainty and self-doubt. Danes is energetic and engaging as a smart woman most attuned to self-interest. Marsan as Houseman, Leo Bill as Lloyd, Tupper as Cotten and Ben Chaplin as the self-important, eternally pessimistic actor George Coulouris all have their moments.
Production and costume design help bring the period of 70 years ago to life. Richard Pope’s widescreen lensing is well composed, but images looked weak, as if from too dim a projector bulb, in the digital presentation caught at the first Toronto fest public showing. End credits were incomplete, so final running time will be two or three minutes longer than the posted 109 minutes.