Orson Welles is best known for his masterpiece Citizen Kane, but he was one of the pioneers in the ascension of radio and theater.
The latter takes center stage in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, as young star Zac Efron (17 Again) being the first person in the title and a portal to a fictionalized tale with historical context in 1937 New York City.
In what is like an autobiographical cinematic rite of passage, Efron's clean-cut 17-year-old Richard Samuels gets the chance of a lifetime at Welles' Mercury Theater. The wannabe convinces the 22-year-old director to give him the role of Lucius in "Julius Caesar", Broadway's initial Shakespearean production.
In the diffuse, yet dialogue zesty yarn, Richard tries to get a grip on his good fortune as he gets to act with rising performers like John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), as well as Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Muriel Brassler (Kelly Reilly). Things look up more when the genius's brusque, ambitious assistant Sonja Jones (Clare Danes) doesn't mind sharing his company outside what would be a landmark production.
Me and Orson Welles has Linklater (Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly) in more of a conventional approach here as he works diligently with his crew to establish a breezy mood. Some wryness is felt as characters get their footing into the early days of theater and of Welles' storied career.
If the proceedings doesn't have zing of what made Welles such a giant, Christian McKay, who played him on-stage, does here with understated resourcefulness even without the boyishness of his desirous underling. It turns out that he's a surprising catalyst, especially in how the actors form their roles from such a grandstanding, demanding impresario. Maybe, Efron's naivety and petulance by way of Richard comes across with too much of his "High School Musical" likeability. But, if he may be miscast and doesn't have the spark with a game Danes, not so for the other lesser-known thespians, especially Chaplin, Marsdan, and Reilly, who act out real folks fillings the Bard's players with an energetic seasoning.
So, if Linklater doesn't get the most out of the romantic angle and not giving Efron the comfort or necessary latitude that the script may not offer, he has tempted many casting directors from the perception and perceptiveness evinced by McKay. Those stumbling into this fairly evocative 1930s piece will definitely have meaning for those interested in the theater and almost resonates like Tim Robbins' underseen Cradle Will Rock an overpacked, if stylish look at the tremulous forces at hand during the staging of a pro-labor musical which Welles had a hand in.