(director: Richard Linklater; screenwriters: Holly Gent Palmo/Vince Palmo/based on the novel by Robert Kaplow; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Sandra Adair; music: Michael J. McEvoy; cast: Zac Efron (Richard Samuels/Lucius), Claire Danes (Sonja Jones), Christian McKay (Orson Welles/Brutus), Ben Chaplin (George Coulouris/Mark Antony), Zoe Kazan (Gretta Adler), Eddie Marsan (John Houseman), Kelly Reilly (Muriel Brassler/Portia), James Tupper (Joseph Cotten/Publius), Simon Nehan (Joe Holland/Julies Caesar), Al Weaver (Sam Leve), Leo Bill (Norman Lloyd/Cinna the Poet), Janie De (Mrs. Samuels, mom); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Richard Linklater/Marc Samuelson/Ann Carli; Warner Bros.; 2008)

“A smart and charming backstage theater film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Linklater (“Before Sunset”/”The School of Rock”/”Waking Life”)directs a smart and charming backstage theater film. It’s based on the novel by high school English teacher Robert Kaplow and is written by first-timers Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo. The enjoyable period drama revolves around the coming-of-age story of a dreamy, hunky and engaging stage-struck 18-year-old high school student, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who lucks out in 1937 to land a week before the opening a non-paying minor acting gig (playing Lucius, Brutus’s lute-strumming page) in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theaternew experimental anti-fascist modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In this production, in the rundown 41st Street theater, Orson Welles (Christian McKay, British actor) plays Brutus and the ambitious Roman plotters are cast as contemporary fascists. The married womanizing boy-genius 22-year-old director/actor/producer, Orson Welles, is theater partners with the more trustworthy John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). The harried loyal business partner puts up with much grief from his partner’s outlandish actions because he recognizes that the self-absorbed egomaniac is a one-of-kind genius that can make stage history.

Blustery Orson is the imperious, manipulative, and shamelessly insincere flatterer, who treats those he employs as his inferiors (for example mocking Richard by calling him Junior, even when requested not to). Orson’s thing is that no one upstage him, or else he fires them. Newcomer McKay’s over-the-top, energetic and nuanced performance was so good it had me believing I was actually seeing the real Orson Welles.

The pic cuts between the bland Richard’s humdrum home life with mom and his tedious NYC high school English lit course to depict Richard’s exciting new stage adventure, as he hangs out with the colorful eccentric theater people who take him under their wing as he learns valuable life lessons. Richard finds illicit romance with the worldly production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who is a few years older, has a nice smile and is not bashful about her ambitions to get ahead by sleeping with those who can help her advance her career (especially keen on Orson’s promise to introduce her to David O. Selznick). Sonja takes a brief respite from her career ambitions to seduce the handsome youngster, which gets him confused when she returns to Orson’s Village lair when he snaps his fingers (I thought their brief fling was a stretch of credibility, though good for plot development). The friendly wide-eyed lad, in an unnecessary and energy draining sensible romantic subplot, picks up the young and naive aspiring writer Gerta Adler (Zoe Kazan) in a music store and continues the romance when they accidentally meet again in front of the Grecian Urn at the NY Public Library.

This imperfect pic is best when it goes Marx Brothers on us and doesn’t make much sense, but is just zany and spirited. It then has a grip on the gigantic persona of its genius featured star and lets him take us along with him on his whirlwind ride to fame as we see how a radio show works, squirm in our seats as he browbeats a hero-worshiping stagehand (Al Weaver) out of getting his due stage credits and watch him chaotically put together his first stage show by barking out dictatorial marching orders to everyone in the cast. The historical show depicted was memorable for its innovative use of lighting, for its unique costumes and for making good use of its low-budget sets to conjure up the madness of mob rule.