Richard Linklater’s first period movie since 1998’s The Newton Boys hangs its hat on the vibrant, feverish New York theatre world of the 1930s.
Stage-struck young drama student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is eager to make his mark on Broadway, and where better than at the Mercury Theatre, where genius wunderkind Orson Welles is rehearsing his forthcoming fascist-uniform production of Julius Caesar?
Welles is one of those roles it’s hard for an actor to screw up; look at Danny Huston, Vincent D’Onofrio or any of the others who’ve played him. Yet Brit actor Christian McKay is maybe the best yet.
The physical similarity’s there, but so too are the qualities that made Welles at once infuriating and irresistible – the charm, the towering ego, the bullying, the lightning-flash brilliance. In McKay’s performance, you can see just what would make Welles great – and then bring him so low.
Inevitably, beside Welles/McKay everyone else tends to pale. Efron’s adequate as Richard – perky, but a little bland. As his love interest, Claire Danes feels awkward having to play someone young enough to think a man of 30 is “really old”.
The pick of the rest is James Tupper, who channels the cool, self-mocking humour – and sexually predatory grin – of Joseph Cotten.
The period detail rings true, and Linklater catches the backstage atmosphere well – the chaos, panic, bitchiness, grandstanding and the mounting catalogue of disasters that just might turn into gold come opening night.
The midsection goes slack at times, but for the most part Me And Orson Welles entertains.
What’s lacking is the psychological depth and involvement that Linklater brought to Before Sunrise and Dazed And Confused – qualities also missing from The Newton Boys. Maybe period drama just isn’t his thing?
A diverting period comedy-drama, but slight compared to Linklater at his sharpest. Worth catching, though, for newcomer Christian McKay’s magisterial portrayal of the young Welles in all his moody, manipulative glory.