Citizen Welles

Richard Linklater's latest peeps the stage-bound early years of the movie genius

FILM It's 1937, and New York City, like the rest of the nation, presumably remains in the grip of the Great Depression. That trifling historical detail, however, is upstaged in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) by the doings at the newly founded Mercury Theatre. There, in the equally tight grip of actor, director, and company cofounder Orson Welles — who makes more pointed use of the historical present, of Italian fascism — a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar hovers on the brink of premiere and possible disaster.

To a layperson, that might not seem like the best time to sub in a player, but luckily for swaggering young aspirant Richard (High School Musical series star Zac Efron), Welles (Christian McKay), already infamously tyrannical at 22, is not a man to shrink from firing an actor a week before opening night and replacing him with a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey. Particularly one who (says he) can play the ukulele. Finding himself working in perilous proximity to the master, his unharnessed ego, and his winsome, dishearteningly pragmatic assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), our callow hero is destined, predictably, to be handed some valuable life experience.

McKay makes a credible, enjoyable Welles, presented as the kind of engaging sociopath who handles people like props and hails ambulances like taxicabs. Efron projects a shallow interior life, an instinct for survival, and the charm of someone who has had charming lines written for him. While Richard's seemingly limitless bravura is amusing, the resultant adventures and mishaps don't seem to elicit much reaction within; what we witness is mild and momentary and bland. Still, he and Welles and the rest are all in service to the play, and so is the film, which offers an absorbing account of the company's final days of rehearsal, including the hair-pulling frustrations that the cast, the crew, and Mercury cofounder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, from 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky) undergo for the sake of working in close quarters with genius.

Absent are the naturalistic talking jags with which Linklater made his name; here it's largely banter and smooth talk and gossipy stage whispers. But just as the teenagers of Dazed and Confused cruised through a sludgy stoner soup of '70s rock, the players of Me and Orson Welles flirt and prank and strut the streets of Manhattan with the atmospheric backing of Gershwin crooners and snappy big band numbers. The one jarring moment, both sonically and in the film at large, is the sound of Efron singing mid-production, earnest and plaintive and incapable of banishing that poppy HSM tremble from his delivery.

Me and Orson Welles opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

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