The 1937 New York that Richard Linklater strives so earnestly to recreate in Me and Orson Welles feels overrun with time travelers but truly inhabited by no one. The setting is the Mercury Theatre, with the future Charles Foster Kane (played by Christian McKay) still a few years away from the movies. Into the creative melee steps Richard (Zac Efron), a New Jersey teen playing hooky to be where the action is and finding himself front and center in Welles' Hamlet.
There's a wonderful precedent for bygone eras in the Linklater filmography: Dazed and Confused. But that was, admittedly, a rather more recently bygone era than the 1930s. As a period picture, Me and Orson Welles only goes halfway, at least on purpose. It's only really interesting when it goes all the way unintentionally.
There's an intentional quality to the movie's artifice, as though Linklater weren't truly trying to recreate 1937 New York, but rather New York as a 1937 Hollywood soundstage. Most of the scenery is confined to a grand old theater, the theater office, and the sidewalk in front of the theater. There's not a lot of New York dollar on the screen, so to speak; it's barely more multidimensional than the city glimpsed cautiously through Venetian blinds by criminals hiding out in a stage drama. There's a fakeness to the extras strolling past, a posed quality to gangs of workmen in the street—and no mistaking Linklater's New York for, say, Martin Scorsese's, that's for sure.
I'm not complaining. Without ever setting foot in the city, one can construct a perfectly serviceable imaginary New York composited of favorite screen versions: Rosemary's Baby, Rear Window, The Sweet Smell of Success, Ghostbusters and Splash, a continuum stretching back to the birth of the feature film. Nominal realism is not required; consider Wes Anderson's Harlem fantasia in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Linklater's version merely adds an element of thrift. This is as much 1937 New York as he was willing to pay for, and it is what it is, as they say. A few clumsy details actually detract from the atmosphere. Linklater's New York is less a livable illusion than an assemblage of wares from a well-stocked prop house laid out in a layered cone-shape whichever way the camera is pointing. I didn't feel I was there, or anywhere but a sound stage, for a second.
There's a further two-ply artifice to the dialogue, in which actors freshly teleported from the 21st century, with all contemporary speech intonations intact, run smack up against the demanding banter of recreated 1930s screenwriting. Dialogue from 1930s movies is a little like a monorail, carried forward by its own strange logic and not by what 2010 Americans would recognize as conversational spontaneity. The actor has no choice but to climb aboard this hurtling dialogue and find a way to see it through to the end.
Much of the dialogue in Me and Orson Welles seems written with the rhythms of this uniquely American (and wholly artificial) sing-song in mind, and a few of its characters actually perform it that way, in lively nasal voices (from a time when male strangers purportedly addressed each other as "mac") and with all the attendant '30s comedy mannerisms. Others, like Claire Danes, convey the effervescence of the dialogue through their physical comportment, not their actual voices. A bewildered Zac Ephron plays Richard with no affect at all, bolt upright on the monorail with eyes fixed straight ahead. Luckily his role is primarily that of observer.
It all adds up to a very strange exercise in retro stylings. You have to hand it to Linklater for trying to restore some of this lost film language, but he's clearly still learning the vocabulary (to be fair, most of the native speakers have been dead for decades). Still, the loudest echoes of the '30s here are the intentional ones: The overlapping monorail tracks of dialogue in a vintage 1937 Hollywood movie had a way of forcing actors into performances that seem hermetic and isolated by today's standards—kind of every man for himself—and that comes through here as well.
Unlike '30s directors, however, Linklater was not forced by the Hays Code into concealing racy material with an OED-thick lexicon of symbols and shibboleths for sexuality and homosexuality, perhaps the era's most elegant contribution to the increasingly complex language of film. There's not much racy about Orson Welles and Me but, what little there is, it's presented with a refreshing pre-Code frankness.
Overall, Me and Orson Welles exists to justify Christian McKay's freakishly right-on rendition of Welles. Perhaps because he's less well-known to Americans than Danes or Ephron, we give ourselves over to him in a way we don't with them. He's a palimpsest, a fresh discovery and, strangest of all, his larger-than-life Welles is the one thing about Me and Orson Welles that makes us forget we're watching contemporary actors in a fake Old New York.
Me and Orson Welles concludes its run at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, Jan. 21.