Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is a teenager who wishes to graduate from school and get out into the world of acting and artistry, so is always seeking a path to realising that dream and away from the boring lessons he doesn’t believe are giving him the practical experience that will actually help him. While in a music shop one day, he meets young pianist Greta (Zoe Kazan) who he engages in conversation about their favourite songsmiths and composers, and makes a friend, but she is in the same position he is artistically, full of ideas and promise though no way of channelling it to their satisfaction. However, after bidding her farewell, he happens to be walking past a theatre when he sees the cast and crew of the Mercury Theater outside, discussing their leader…
As the title suggests, that leader is Orson Welles, at the time an enfant terrible in the arts world as he was in his early twenties and had his own theatre company, not to mention a successful radio career thanks to his famously rich voice. He hadn’t made it into the movies yet, so this was more a hymn to the theatre and the sort of people who populated it, from the inspirational types like Welles to the footsoldiers like Richard becomes, though Robert Kaplow who penned the source novel fully admitted he had simply invented much of the plot that bore passing resemblance to reality. This caused Norman Lloyd, still alive and kicking, to criticise the movie as being inaccurate, which says something about the benefits of waiting till your subjects are no longer with us.
But if this was mostly a fantasy on Welles’ celebrated production of Julius Caesar, at least it offered us the chance to enjoy McKay’s interpretation of the larger than life personality, which was very good indeed, leaving most of the reaction to this praising him and making excuses for the rest of the project. Efron was trying to break away from the Disney stable that made his name, but was not helped by the fact Richard was far from the most interesting character and the Claire Danes romance was perfunctory at best, and if director Richard Linklater had been cannier he would have left him as the supporting role and concentrated on McKay’s barnstorming performance. Also problematic was that tone, which appeared to serve to undercut Welles at every opportunity.
That was understandable to a point, as the rehearsals are shown to be shaky to contrast with the ultimate triumph of opening night, and the rest of the run for that matter which was a big success in real life, but it still left the end of the film where Welles has treated Richard pretty badly; if Welles had been as long lived as Lloyd, he would have a case for defamation should the artistic licence gambit not have held up. Aside from the premiere where it all goes swimmingly and wows the audience, and the cast and crew into the bargain thus proving Welles’ instincts absolutely correct, the rest of the drama was made up of scenes illustrating what a backstabber Welles could be as long as it kept his name up in lights, and that wasn’t really fair.
Welles was loyal to the talents he fostered around him, and though he may have had a temper and was not perfect in his treatment of others thanks to the sort of ego that did enable him to tackle and adapt Shakespeare to his specification while still in his early twenties, he was by no means as lacking in doubts about his self-belief as this portrayed. There might well be a good movie in parts of Welles’ life, but this wasn’t it as aside from McKay and some nice supporting work from the Brits putting on accents (this was shot on the Isle of Man) it didn’t amount to much but riding on the coattails of its subject all the while whispering in his ear – and ours – that he wasn’t as great as his reputation, much like Julius Caesar would have on his parades, which considering how much better the best of Welles was than this had some cheek. It was a facet in the movement to reveal and chip away at the perceived feet of clay public figures had in the Twenty-First Century, so contemporary to that, but rather unbecoming. Music by Michael J. McEvoy.
Skilled indie director, specialising in dialogue-driven comedy-drama. Linklater's 1989 debut Slacker was an unusual but well-realised portrait of disaffected 20-something life in his home town of Austin, Texas, while many consider Dazed and Confused, his warm but unsentimental snapshot of mid-70s youth culture, to be one of the best teen movies ever made. Linklater's first stab at the mainstream - comedy western The Newton Boys - was a disappointment, but Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape and the animated Waking Life are all intelligent, intriguing pictures.