The story of an omelet told from an eggshell’s point of view, Me and Orson Welles relates the events of one week in November 1937, when a fictional high school student named Richard happens upon some actors goofing off on New York’s Forty-first Street and gets cast in a show that just might open: the Mercury Theatre’s soon-to-be-legendary Caesar. A day-tripping kid from the suburbs will accidentally participate in greatness. As the Mercury’s office manager and all-purpose sweetheart puts it, he will get to sit at the feet of Orson Welles and be showered with his spittle.
As swift and stripped-down as its title, the Caesar into which Richard has wandered will thrillingly transform Shakespeare’s Roman general into a present-day dictator in jackboots and black shirt, provided the director and star ever lets the play get out of rehearsals. Welles is a dictator too, you see, though without any ideal of military discipline, and evidently can’t bear to set an opening date, because then the chaos would end and he could no longer go on bullying and seducing and making everyone in the company wait on his every whim. “Can you play the ukulele?” Welles demands of Richard upon seeing him on the sidewalk, as if it were the first question that would pop into anyone’s mind. Without asking why, Richard looks Welles in the eye, lies and says yes. Welles stares back, recognizes the lie and hires him anyway, telling him he’s now Lucius. It seems the dictator has found a new underling, one with just enough spirit to make him temporarily interesting to break.
But I’m making Me and Orson Welles sound grim and scolding, when in fact it’s merely a little melancholy around the edges. Directed by Richard Linklater as one of his bustling, large-ensemble excursions into misbehavior–think of Dazed and Confused or School of Rock, but with a period setting and blank verse–the film is if anything a product of infatuation: with the limitlessness of Welles, the boisterous self-involvement of acting companies and (above all) the perpetual astonishment of young people at finding themselves where they are.
Welles was one of these young people, or should have been. Though already famous in New York theater circles by 1937, and furiously busy as one of America’s most successful radio actors, he was 22 when he founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman and staged Caesar–making him all of five years older than the Richard he addresses as “Junior” throughout the film. The one serious objection I can make to Me and Orson Welles is that Christian McKay’s uncanny reincarnation of Welles the Boy Genius–“impersonation” would be too weak a word–has too little of the boy in it. You get Welles the self-propelling volcano, rumbling in every decibel range, swiveling his girth from side to side and occasionally letting forth actual flames (just one of his magic tricks)–the Welles, that is, who had to be propitiated, as various members of the acting company keep telling Richard. You also get Welles the mischief-maker, of course, who enlivens Linklater’s film by zooming around New York in a rented ambulance, or habitually striding into radio studios mere seconds before air time. (It’s all true.) But this side of Welles’s character seems almost a condescension in the movie. You don’t get a sense that this grand figure really was, chronologically, within tantalizing reach of a high school kid.