This is one of those “what if?” stories, in which fiction is blended with fact to make a “better” tale. I usually hate “what if” stories. I didn’t hate this one.
In Me and Orson Welles, the situation is this: What if an aspiring teenage actor happened to be there on Broadway at the dawn of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1937, cast in Welles’ fame-making production of Julius Caesar? Clearly, such a green kid doesn’t belong in this situation. The secret of the film’s success is that its creators understand this.
The teenager is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, of High School Musical mega fame), who we first meet dozing in his suburban high-school English class, and then idly wandering the streets and museums of Manhattan. Restless, bored and eager for experience, the kid happens on a theater company waiting on the sidewalk for the arrival of their director. He banters with the actors, matching wisecracks with enough bravado to earn their respect. And then Orson Welles arrives, imperious and jocular. The kid manages to charm his way into a bit part by singing a breakfast cereal jingle.
Most of Efron’s vast tweener fan base likely have no idea who Orson Welles is. It’s like that scene in Zombieland, when Woody Harrelson is aghast that Abigail Breslin doesn’t know who Bill Murray is.
“That’s like not knowing who Gandhi is,” he exclaims.
“Who’s Gandhi?” she replies.
Here, actor Christian McKay brings to the role a level of authority, humor, passion and infectious exuberance that would charm the most ignorant viewer into accepting that “Orson Welles” is a man of great importance. Those familiar with Welles won’t be disappointed, either. McKay, who should have snagged an Oscar nom for this performance, is majestic as the boy genius of radio and theater.
The kid is enchanted with everything: the company, the old theater itself, Welles’ radical reworking of Shakespeare, and Welles. The company offers comradeship and the promise of sex; Welles represents the lure of glamour and fame. Director Richard Linklater doesn’t idealize or sentimentalize the milieu; instead, he shows us how easy it is for a kid like Richard to do both.
Romance rears its pretty face in the person of company secretary Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). She’s set her cap on meeting Hollywood producers; the kid is undeterred. In an amusing moment, he offers her adventure, romance and wealth—all at the movies, which is all he can afford. There’s no suspense here, and that’s all to the good. Their one-week friendship will end as it is supposed to end.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the story takes place over the course of just one week. Linklater, who knows a thing or two about using the passage of time to enhance drama, uses this to great advantage. Every small crisis is magnified.
That the kid’s magnificent adventure ends as quickly as it began is no letdown. But Me and Orson Welles ends on a note of melancholy that’s as fully earned as it is a surprise.