‘Me and Orson Welles,’ a coming of age story that handles Welles perfectly

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by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

The Me in “Me and Orson Welles” (2009) takes a back seat to the Him.    

Him being Welles, that is, the temperamental artiste whom we get a glimpse of through the eyes of a young admirer who gets to work near, with, and for him.

The PG-13-rated film is a low-keyed, semi-fictional reminiscence that centers on 17-year-old Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron, a high school senior who serendipitously, thanks to a chance sidewalk encounter with Welles, gets a bit part in the Mercury Theater modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar  to be directed in New York City in 1937 by the mercurial 22-year-old boy wonder who will go on to direct “Citizen Kane.” 

The legendary Welles -- exploitative, manipulative, seductive, indefatigable, prodigiously talented, extravagantly self-centered, and extraordinarily productive -- introduces Richard to his assistant, played by Claire Danes, with whom Richard is immediately smitten.

Ah, but Richard doesn't yet understand the rules that govern behavior in Welles ' orbit. 

He soon will.

The film's most spectacular asset is the uncanny performance by Christian McKay as Welles.  He captures the egomaniacal genius in every imaginable way.  It's not surprising to learn that Brit McKay previously played the larger-than-life Welles in a one-man stage play, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.

McKay's Wellesian facial expressions, gestures, alertness, carriage, diction, energy, arrogance, charm, intonations, and voice are all spot-on.  Almost miraculously, this absolutely dazzling turn has grand theatricality about it but never seems anything other than real: we have to keep reminding ourselves that we're not actually watching Welles himself.

Eclectic and prolific director Richard Linklater  (“Slackers,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “ Before Midnight,” “School of Rock,” “Bernie,” “Boyhood,” “Bad News Bears,” “Fast Food Nation”) -- working from Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo's adaptation of the novel by Robert Kaplow that puts the protagonist, the book's only fictional character, among storied real-life theater folk -- pulls off a fascinating re-creation of the theater district and the theater experience.

Theater lovers and students of theater history may have minor objections to the dramatic-license liberties being taken but should nonetheless find the behind-the-scenes subject matter compelling and the period detail authentic. And just try taking your eyes off McKay whenever Welles turns up. 

“Me and Orson Welles” is a fascinating theatrical coming-of-age dramedy that knows how to leave Welles enough alone.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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