December 11, 2009 at 11:37 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Me and Orson Welles' -- GRADE: B+

Review: 'Me and Orson Welles' blends romance, genius

Zac Efron plays a bit actor who is cast in an Orson Welles play. (CinemaNX Films One)

A thoroughly enjoyable film that wraps a coming-of-age story around the portrait of a genius, versatile director Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" features a downright brilliant performance.

In fact, previously unknown actor Christopher McKay is so mesmerizing in his performance as the young, brash, impetuous, selfish, childish and undeniably brilliant Orson Welles that he threatens to ruin the movie by flying above it. You never want to see him leave the screen, so you almost resent it when the plot wanders elsewhere. Yeah, you think, sure, love story, fine -- but can we get back to Welles?

Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old in 1937 New York with vague dreams of being a performer when he stumbles into a bit part in Welles' groundbreaking theatrical production of "Julius Caesar."

As we've learned from countless films, theater is a chaotic process, made far more chaotic than normal here by Welles' grand visions and gargantuan ego. Richard falls in love with an ambitious theater assistant (Claire Danes) ... but enough of that, let's talk about Welles.

McKay's performance is florid and exhilarating, so bold you feel you're watching the real Welles. And the screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo perfectly captures the fierce nature of the man. He manipulates, he chastises, yells and betrays, all in the name of art, but also in the name of Orson.

As Welles fades and Richard's love trials wind down, it's easy to wish the romance had been cut from the film. But it's needed for human balance -- Efron brings a young charm to balance Welles' voice-of-God confidence.

Built in is our knowledge that Welles' couldn't maintain the fire of his youth. But "Me and Orson Welles" at least offers some of that heat.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879