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'Me and Orson Welles': Coming-of-age film is mercurial theater

He swaggered, an outsize personality who filled a room figuratively decades before he did literally.

Labeled a "genius" in childhood, damned if he didn't spend his 20s proving that to be the case — and how.

Me and Orson Welles is a coming-of-age comedy built around the "Me," a star-struck theater lover winningly played by Zac Efron. But it's a movie dominated by Orson Welles — "tyro" and enfant terrible of the American theater.

Richard Linklater's affectionate homage to the man who would go on to scare America witless with his War of the Worlds broadcast and then reinvent the cinema with Citizen Kane is a movie-lover's delight. Linklater, thanks to a brilliant, sly and self-aware turn by Christian McKay, reminds us what all the fuss over Orson is all about.

Efron is Richard, a would-be thespian going to high school in the greater New York of the 1930s. He stumbles into the Great Orson on Welles' way to rehearse his legendary production of Julius Caesar, which he reset in modern fascist Italy.

Welles is a pathological flatterer, nicknaming the kid "Gielgud" and "the ukulele player." He needs an actor who can sing and play a uke for a scene opposite his own turn as Brutus. Richard becomes a witness to theater history as the show comes together, and he falls, hard, for the "older woman" office manager (Claire Danes).

McKay has the Welles twinkle, his bluster and confidence, a man so talented he can improvise a better monologue on the radio than the one his scriptwriters for The Shadow wrote. He blurts out, "I'm starving," just the way Welles did in Citizen Kane, and he charms, charms, charms.

Equally fine are actors playing other members of Welles' Mercury Theater. Eddie Marsan is terrific as a Romanian immigrant who faked a British accent and became John Houseman, Welles' right-hand man in those years. Ben Chaplin is an arrogant and high-strung George Coulouris, and James Tupper is a dapper, randy and world-wise Joseph Cotton.

Efron fits neatly into all this, a wide-eyed innocent trying to grow up too fast, hold his own in sex banter with the boys and not fail in front of the imposing Welles, who seduces and thunders at one and all in pursuit of his vision.

Linklater holds our interest while working within the boundaries of an overly familiar "that's when I grew up" story. For serious cinema buffs, he does even more than that, giving us a peek at what working for a true giant of the arts must have been like: thrilling, exasperating and, above all, fun.

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