Orson Welles' 1937 staging of Julius Caesar for his newly founded Mercury Theatre is widely regarded as one of the most audacious, memorable, and exciting plays ever performed in America. Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, puts the viewer in the middle of the hectic week leading up to the ambitious show's opening.
High-school student Richard (Zac Efron) dreams of a life on the stage, so he takes trips into Manhattan and, on one of these occasions -- thanks to his drum- and ukulele-playing skills -- manages to BS his way into the cast of Welles' newest production. The impressionable kid immediately becomes swept up into this exciting new world. As he learns from his brilliant, mercurial new mentor, Richard attempts to win the affections of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), an ambitious secretary at the theater who has designs on meeting David O. Selznick. Young Richard also befriends fellow actors Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), leading to a wager among the trio of men over who will be the first of the three to seduce the heretofore unattainable Sonja. What Richard doesn't expect is that he will have to compete not with them, but with Welles himself for her attention.
Linklater's movie is a handsomely mounted period piece/coming-of-age tale -- sort of a Dazed and Confused for theater geeks. Richard learns bittersweet truths about sex, love, friendship, and Shakespeare -- but what makes it something of a must-see is Christian McKay's riveting performance as the 22-year-old Orson Welles. At this stage, Welles was the enfant terrible of the theatrical world -- a kid genius who would deceive, browbeat, cajole, charm, and manipulate everyone around him in order to bring his vision to life. McKay not only gets all of the physical aspects of Welles down -- the sly smile, the mischievous, twinkling glint in the eye, the jaunty gait -- but he captures the monumental grandiosity of Welles' unmistakable voice. He nails Welles' ability to shift from seductive, velvety smooth tones to a commanding, bestial roar in a heartbeat.
Let's be clear -- this is not just an impersonation, it's a masterful piece of acting because the role demands a full-blooded performance, not a simple evocation of our collective memories of the man. A sequence where he hijacks a live radio play gives us insight into how quickly he could think on his feet, as well as how his gargantuan ego made him both a living legend and an impossible person to deal with. For those familiar with Welles, you'll giggle during the first half of the movie whenever he opens his mouth because you can't believe what you're seeing and hearing, but during the second half you'll simply accept that you're looking at Welles in all his complicated glory. McKay steals the film, in a performance Welles himself would have adored.