The year is 1937, when the great man is twenty-two. The newly formed Mercury Theatre, under the joint direction of Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), is mounting its first production in New York—a heavily cut and rearranged version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with the characters dressed in the uniforms and long coats of the Italian Fascists. We see Welles through the eyes of a cocky seventeen-year-old, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a New Jersey kid who bluffs his way into the company.
Richard Linklater, the director, and Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, the screenwriters (who adapted Robert Kaplow’s 2003 novel of the same title), create a bond between the boy and the theatre big shot. Welles recognizes Samuels as a fellow-mover, and, for a frantic week, as the production lurches toward opening night, the two of them take each other’s measure. It’s a drastically unequal contest. Welles plays Brutus in the production, but his will is closer to Caesar’s. He seduces and bullies everyone, drops actors from the script at will, exercises droit du seigneur over the women in the company, and, in general, acts as if he were God incarnate, which, for all practical purposes, he is. The actors and the craftsmen admire him, loathe him, and know that they couldn’t have theatrical careers of comparable magnitude without him—all New York awaits the opening.
The plot, unfortunately, is conventionally conceived: Richard gets initiated into sex and other fascinating and complicated rites of the grownup world; that is, he gets warmed and then burned by people more experienced and ruthless than anyone could be at seventeen. We’ve seen this rueful coming-of-age story before. And we’ve seen other movies about the staging of a famous production. But if “Me and Orson Welles” isn’t as witty as “Shakespeare in Love,” which, after all, had a script shined up by Tom Stoppard, it’s much better than “Cradle Will Rock,” Tim Robbins’s 1999 account of another legendary early Welles project, a movie with too many characters and too narrow a view (i.e., orthodox left) of the relation of money and art. The strength of “Me and Orson Welles” is that it sticks to Welles’s actual production and to the life of a new theatre company. This is a movie of great spirit and considerable charm. It’s about the giddiness of promise—the awakening of young talent, after years of the Depression, to a moment when anything seems possible.
Working with a limited budget, Linklater found a vintage theatre on the Isle of Man which doubles for the Mercury, on West Forty-first Street (formerly the Comedy, and now long gone); he and his crew reconstructed nineteen-thirties-style New York exteriors at Pinewood Studios, outside London, and assembled a decent cast to support McKay. As Samuels, Zac Efron, the dancing teen heartthrob and shirtless Internet sensation, is surprisingly winning. Efron draws on his confident good looks (from certain angles, this Jewish hoofer from California looks like, of all people, Tyrone Power) without being smug. He’s an actor, after all—maybe even a genuine star. And the even better-looking Claire Danes, of the foot-wide smile, achieves something difficult as Welles’s secretary, Sonja Jones, a friendly and likable woman whose ambition is nevertheless so ravenous that she can’t be trusted for a second. There are many minor characters, swiftly and easily drawn. Linklater, the director of “Slackers,” “School of Rock,” and many other movies, usually works with pop culture; this is his first foray into the classics. Quippy, fast, and enjoyably corny, “Welles” is like a musical comedy without songs. The music is mostly swing hits from the period, along with Marc Blitzstein’s martial drums-and-brass score for the original production, which is played (with the musicians missing many cues) throughout the film.
As opening night nears, Richard’s adventures are of secondary interest, and we welcome with relish the movie’s returning again and again to Welles. He carries on like a much older man—Henry Irving, for example, or some other flamboyant, groundbreaking actor-manager of the nineteenth century, who raised money, edited texts, designed sets, starred in many of the productions, and kept the company going. But Welles has a modernist temperament and a subversive love of shock. He’s abrasive, treacherous, boastful, and inconstant, blocking and reblocking the show at the last minute. At first, this bombast, no matter how amusing, feels too broadly vociferous. Then it becomes clear that Linklater and McKay are portraying Welles as a man who’s consciously entertaining and stimulating his company, playing the black-hearted son of a bitch, creating a crisis atmosphere so that he can pull everything together at the last minute and save the day.
What reconciles us to him, and also compels the actors, including Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), to stay with him, is his theatrical intelligence. Welles directs as he acts, moving people around between lines, getting them to lower or raise their voices or shape a phrase in a different way. He’s like a conductor who points out mistakes while pushing the music forward. And when opening night finally arrives, and we get to see chunks of the production, the old radical theatre ideas still have power. The stage is bare, the back wall a rust red, the violence frightening, and the audience stunned.
For moviegoers, however, the triumph is bittersweet. A theatrical performance can be altered and revised until just before the curtain rises, but a movie, with its thousands of interlocking details, requires long-range planning, consistency, and reliability. In Welles’s rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory of 1937, one sees the habits that will lead not only to a few peerless films but also to many defeats and tragically abandoned projects.