No one could be more surprised than I am that I would love a Richard Linklater movie, but it’s true: I love Me and Orson Welles. It’s a film that proves other startling things—like the fact that Zac Efron can act and Ben Chaplin can be interesting. It also introduces us to an unknown Brit actor named Christian McKay, whose portrayal of the young Orson Welles is downright uncanny. Beyond that, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the theater, about being young and in love with art, about the first disillusionment with art, and about the ability to bounce back from that disillusionment. It helps immensely that the film is also just plain entertaining. I watched it late on a Saturday night, got up on Sunday and watched it again.
The story concerns a high-school kid, Richard Samuels (Efron), who is immediately established as being interested in the arts. He bumps into a girl, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, Revolutionary Road), playing Gershwin in a music store and bemoaning the death of the composer. This leads to a discussion of Gershwin and Richard Rodgers—complete with youthful overstatement (Gretta claims she’d give anything to have written the first five notes of “There’s a Small Hotel”)—and further revelations about each one’s creative dreams. (Justin Souther pointed out to me that this scene is one that keeps the film from feeling like a standard period piece, noting that two kids discussing Gershwin and Rodgers in contemporary terms translates perfectly into something modern by simply changing musicians.)
Sooner than Richard could possibly imagine, the opportunity for a full immersion into the creative world of the theater drops into his lap—and not just any theater, but Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and Welles’ version of Julius Caesar, with the play presented as a contemporary story of fascist Italy. He lands a (non-paying) role in the production by being able to play a drum roll (to herald the great man’s arrival) and on sheer moxie—the latter especially appealing to Welles. In no time, Richard is thrust into the storm that constantly surrounds Welles and any Wellesian undertaking. Everything appears to be chaos dictated by Welles and his egocentric desires.
Much happens—including a romance with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the woman who keeps the madness as in check as it can possibly be—and all of it is geared, one way or another, to the world of the theater and the realization of Welles’ vision. The more familiar you are with Welles and his company, the more certain aspects will mean. So many people central to Welles’ career are there—Joseph Cotten (TV actor James Tupper), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky), George Colouris (Ben Chaplin), Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill, Kinky Boots)—and recognizing that adds to the film’s resonance, but it’s by no means a requisite for following it.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film lies in the glimpses we see of the opening-night performance of Julius Caesar. Not only does Linklater capture the excitement of the event, but he does so in a way that justifies Welles’ ego, arrogance and apparent disorganization. He creates something truly rare—a play depicted on film in such a way that you really wish you could have been there to see it.
On its simplest level, Me and Orson Welles can be taken as a coming-of-age story, but in its way, it’s two coming-of-age stories—Richard’s passage to adulthood and Welles coming into his full-blown genius. Both levels have their share of joy and sorrow—and, if it comes to that, of two studies in self-promotion and the promise of self-induced downfalls. There’s a great deal more going on here than may be apparent on the surface.
The film’s attention to period detail feels effortless and authentic. I only caught one small instance of cheating where the popular music track was concerned: the use of the 1938 Benny Goodman recording “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1937. That it comes across so smoothly is all the more remarkable when you realize that much of the film was shot on the Isle of Man where the Gaeity Theatre offered the closest approximation of the long-demolished Mercury.
There’s very little to fault here and much to praise, but most especially there’s Christian McKay’s Orson Welles. If nothing else about the film had worked, his portrayal—embodiment really—of Welles would make the film worth seeing. He is truly astonishing, but in many ways so is the whole film. Rated PG-13 for sexual references and smoking.