When a Bombastic Young Man Bestrode the Boards of the Mercury Theater ('Me and Orson Welles')

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The action in “Me and Orson Welles” takes place in 1937 during a single hectic week bookended by two moments of relative tranquillity in which a boy (Zac Efron) meets a girl (Zoe Kazan). In the film’s final scene, as they stroll out of the New York Public Library, the girl, an aspiring writer, bubbles with enthusiasm about the world of music, art and literature that seems to be opening up all around them. So much is going on! So much to be part of!

Though specific in its period references — the musical choices in particular are fresh and precise — this movie is much more than an exercise in nostalgia for those storied old days, when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker, Orson Welles bestrode the boards of the Mercury Theater and Brooks Atkinson reviewed plays for The New York Times.

Instead, “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater, with a screenplay (from Robert Kaplow’s novel) by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, pays tribute to youthful creative ambition where and whenever it may thrive. The story of a teenager’s sometimes uncomfortable brush with greatness, it is necessary viewing for anyone whose imagination has been seduced by the charms of art.

Which can be a painful, disillusioning experience as well as a source of exhilaration. This, at any rate, is what Richard, Mr. Efron’s character, discovers when he stumbles into the Mercury’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by a bombastic young fellow who lends his name to the film’s title and to so much else besides. “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane” are still in the future, as are the triumphs and brutal disappointments of Welles’s postwar career, but the ego and the brilliance are in full blossom.

They are captured, with a brio and wit that puts most biopic mummery to shame, by Christian McKay, a British actor with a slender résumé and superhuman confidence. His evident relish in the dimensions of this role is a crucial part of the performance. It’s so much fun to play Orson Welles because it must have been at least as much fun to be Orson Welles...

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