The infamous 1937 Mercury Theatre staging of Julius Caesar is given a magnificent treatment in director Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. Linklater approaches the story of one of theater history's greatest happenings with a surprisingly intimate eye and a true sense of authenticity.
This was Orson Welles before he broadcast War of the Worlds or directed Citizen Kane. The sort of things he was pulling off in theater—like staging Caesar with a modern feel (he set the story in then-contemporary Fascist Italy)—were remarkably ahead of their time, and Linklater creates a fantastic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants portrayal of a theater company not entirely confident in what they were doing.
As portrayed in the film, Welles (a remarkable Christian McKay) has enough boorish self-esteem to propel the entire company while his suffering cast tries to learn their lines and staging amid their director's strange rehearsal schedule. Linklater portrays those jitters as something that's as routine as breathing for these performers. The show would be nothing if it weren't a bit nerve-racking.
At the center of the story is Richard Samuels, a fictional 17-year-old played by none other than Mr. High School Musical himself, Zac Efron. Efron showed some spunk earlier this year in the silly 17 Again, and his work here is further proof that the guy could have a decent future as an actor.
The setup for the story is a bit improbable but entertaining. Samuels simply stops by a new place in his neighborhood, the Mercury Theatre, and auditions for the role of Lucius on the spot; he gets the gig, something that conflicts wildly with his high school schedule. Within a day, he's rubbing elbows with the likes of John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) while wooing one of Welles' assistants, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
Danes plays Sonja as a woman who is sensible on the surface, but a little whacked with screwed-up priorities underneath. To her, having to spend a "romantic" evening with Orson Welles is just part of the deal, a stepping-stone toward stardom.
McKay, who is considerably older than the Welles he is portraying in the film, simply owns the role. Welles has been portrayed many times in movies, but this performance is the one for the time capsule. It doesn't feel like an impersonation; it feels like Welles has risen from the grave, in pre-Kane form, and thrown himself into the film as a favor to Linklater. McKay's Welles is a completely brilliant bastard; it's both a somewhat unflattering and loving portrayal of one of entertainment history's greatest geniuses.
As for the actual staging of the play, Linklater captures it all: the missed cues, the pre-show breakdowns, the near-tragedies and the terrible rehearsal the night before the show opens. He does such a great job that you actually get the sense that you are in the show with the actors when the curtain finally rises.
When Linklater's staging of Welles' work was finished, I was left impressed by his interpretation of what might've happened, and very envious of those who got to see the real deal back in 1937.
Having participated in some small theater-company productions, I can say that those of you who have done theater will be mesmerized. Linklater most definitely captures the thrills and the insanity.