In the traditional mythologies, two views of Orson Welles predominate, neither exactly flattering: the boy genius of the pre-Citizen Kane years, a fiery, arrogant wunderkind who cares for nothing except his art, unless it’s the company of as many women as will have him; and later, the bloated fatso pissing his legacy away on indifferent supporting roles and television spots while unable to complete any work of his own. Whatever the historical accuracy of these images may be (and we know that the second, in particular, is a dangerously false characterization), it’s not clear what productive use is to be gained from their continued rehashing. Which is why, among other reasons, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which draws on Richard Kaplow’s novel of the same name and takes place during the filmmaker’s 1937 make-it-or-break-it stage production of Julius Caesar, seems such an unenlightening exercise. Hewing closely to the boy genius paradigm, the film benefits from actor Christian McKay’s eerie evocation of Welles’s look and voice (nailing such mannerisms as a wry gesture at the corner of the mouth), but, setting aside a single scene where Welles waxes poetic on the art of acting, the film’s conception of the central character seems limited to the outline provided early on by his sometime lover: “competitive, self-centered, brilliant”—with the second of those qualities predominating.
But this isn’t really Welles’s story. Instead, the film unfolds principally as the coming-of-age tale of his enthusiastic 17-year-old not-quite-protégé. As played by Zac Efron, Richard Samuels is all bluster and charm, smoothly bluffing his way into the cast of Welles’s Caeser after skipping school one day to hang out in front of the Mercury Theater. Landing a small role in his hero’s latest production, this would-be thesp gets to know the other players (including a young Joseph Cotton), falls in love with the theater’s ambitious secretary, and has his occasional brushes, both encouraging and disillusioning, with the big man himself.
As a tale of youthful optimism faced with the realities of a harsh business, Linklater’s film takes its time kicking into gear, mostly because the pairing promised by the title is so lightly touched upon until the film’s final third. Instead, the director relies on Efron to carry the show, but the High School Musical actor is finally too bland to sell us much of interest apart from his youthful enthusiasm and a cockiness unsupported by personality. Only after Samuels finds himself as part of a love triangle with Welles and his secretary do things get interesting, though even these later scenes serve principally to paint the Citizen Kane auteur as a self-serving asshole.
The film’s pleasures (such as they are), then, are to be found almost entirely in the meticulously recreated period design—even as the brown-dominated color scheme, the constant blare of big-band horns on the soundtrack, and the glossiness of the sets tend to impart a frozen-in-amber quality, relegating the film to the realm of the comfortably historical. None of which stops Linklater from staging two magnificent set pieces that, in their attention to detail and sense of inventiveness, go some way toward undoing the perfunctory quality of the rest of the production. In one early scene, Welles lends his vocal talents to a radio broadcast. As the camera circles past the half-dozen actors huddled around a single microphone, it picks up such period touches as the in-house orchestra and the foley artists at work creating sound effects, before turning its attention to Welles, who improvises an entire speech, confounding his fellow actors and delighting the producers.
But even this scene is topped by the opening night Caesar performance in which Welles brings it all together, making 11th-hour changes to the script just minutes before the curtain rises. As the play unfolds, Linklater gives us a generous selection of scenes from what appears to have been a visually varied and impeccably acted production, spotlighting Welles the thespian as much as Welles the director. What makes these two sequences so appealing is that they show a method to the auteur’s madness, the upshot of his incredibly demanding working methods and his insufferable personality. Too bad the rest of the film seems more interested in chronicling that very insufferabllity—not to mention Welles’s general immorality—than it is in documenting the director’s lasting achievements.