Having always thought fondly of Richard Linklater's underseen and underrated 1920s bank-heist comedy The Newton Boys, I've been eager to see the versatile, Austin-based director take another stab at directing a period film. Unfortunately, after catching up with Linklater's Me and Orson Welles here in Toronto, I wish he hadn't. Based on a 2005 young adult novel by Robert Kaplow, this is one of those whimsical historical films in which we see some storied event — in this case, Welles' landmark, 1937 staging of Julius Caesar — through the eyes of a minor background player. As Stephen Sondheim so memorably put it in his Pacific Overtures, "Without someone in a tree/Nothing happened here."
In Me and Orson Welles, that eyewitness to history is an eager-beaver high-school student named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who fast-talks his way into Welles' Mercury Theatre company and lands a bit part in Caesar as Lucius, the lute-playing servant boy who sings Brutus (played by Welles in the famous production) a gentle lullaby early on in Act IV. Naturally, the backstage drama at the Mercury rivals the Shakespearean text, as Welles (played with spot-on mimicry, but ultimately little nuance by British newcomer Christian McKay) postpones opening night, revises wildly on the spot, burns bridges and betrays friendships, all while somehow making everyone feel privileged to bask in his titanic genius. Those scenes are amusing up to a point, but given Linklater's considerable gifts as a keen observer of human behavior, they're curiously void of any real insight into Welles' creative process, a life in the theater, or anything else the movie thinks it's about. After a while, it starts to feel like we're watching a bunch of gesticulating lookalikes in a Broadway waxworks.
Still, better that than the hopelessly dopey, charmless flirtation between Richard and Welles' pert, upwardly mobile assistant (played in an atypically arch, fussy performance by Claire Danes). Together, they have all the romantic chemistry of two embalmed corpses, while Efron in particular is so markedly unconvincing as a Noel Coward-reading, Cole Porter-quoting bon vivant that Justin Timberlake would have been eminently preferable. The play's the thing here, with Linklater's climactic, lovingly detailed depiction of Caesar's opening night somewhat — but not nearly enough — redeeming what we've had to sit through to get there. I didn't go into Me and Orson Welles expecting another All About Eve exactly, but the folly of Linklater's film is that it make you think more kindly uponShakespeare in Love.