What do you say about a movie that proves Zac Efron can act, introduces a master thespian in Christian McKay and launches a charm assault that is damn near irresistible? I say, see it. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) has crafted a thrilling movie about, of all things, the theater. The time is 1937, the place is New York, and boy wonder Orson Welles (McKay) is rehearsing a modern-dress production of Julius Caesar that will set him on the path to legend.
Linklater goes right at the exhilaration of it — you can practically breathe the air of the Mercury Theatre — leaving the grand gestures to Welles. British actor McKay plays the man who would be Citizen Kane in a miraculous act of physical and vocal transformation surpassed only by the way he seems to dig deep into Welles’ conflicted soul. Wow.
Efron takes a more oblique approach, and it pays off handsomely. As Richard Samuels, the only fictional character in the book by Robert Kaplow, from which Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo have carved a dexterous script, Richard is our eyes and ears into Welles’ world. Only 17, Richard blunders into a meeting with the then-22-year-old genius, wins a small role in the play, gets seduced by an ambitious assistant, Sonja (a deceptively perky Claire Danes), and falls under the spell of everything theatrical Welles builds with producing partner John Houseman (the great Eddie Marsan).
The film brims with wonderful turns from actors playing actors — James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd, Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris. But what makes the movie stick, besides Linklater’s pitch-perfect direction, is the way McKay and Efron handle the seduction and betrayal of Richard by Welles. The treachery is sweetly done, of course, but it leaves its mark. Just like the movie.