Me and Orson Welles artfully mixes fact and fiction

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Me and Orson Welles **** Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

Despite premiering to justifiable critical acclaim at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, Richard Linklater's (Before Sunset, Slacker) enchanting Me and Orson Welles languished in exhibition limbo for nearly a year before finally securing an American distribution deal. Yet instead of the Weinstein-era Miramax or present-day Sony Classics — two savvy distributors who could have parlayed Welles to art-house riches and Oscar gold — the Linklater movie is finally dribbling into theaters under the auspices of Freestyle Releasing, a company whose biggest theatrical hit to date is The Collector, a cruddy, sub-Saw torture-porn flick. C'est tragique, non?

But don't let that impecunious imprimatur deter you from savoring one of the most purely enjoyable films of this or any other year. A valentine to a life in the theater — and a giant kiss to the precocious genius of the 22-year-old Orson Welles — Linklater's charming lagniappe deserves as wide an audience as possible. Framed against the impossibly romantic backdrop of 1937 Manhattan — lovingly recreated on the Isle of Man — and Welles' then nascent Mercury Theater, Me and Orson Welles freely mix-and-matches historical personages (Welles, John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd) with fictional characters (including Zac Efron's "Me" and Claire Danes as Mercury Gal Friday Sonja Jones).

Based on the equally whimsical novel by Robert Kaplow, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo's witty, literate screenplay is as much of a coming-of-age story as Linklater's Dazed and Confused. After being recruited by Welles to play a small role in an upcoming Mercury production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, brash high schooler Richard Samuels (Efron, proving that he's more than just a teen heartthrob) gets a crash course on the legitimate thea-tuh (and oversized theatrical egos) and, naturally, love. Danes, in her most charming performance since Shopgirl, makes Sonja as irresistible to the audience as she is to virginal, shrinking violet Richard.

British actor Christian McKay wins MVP honors for his uncannily spot-on portrayal of Welles. Not only does McKay capture the famously sonorous Welles voice (easy enough for any celebrity impersonator), but he also finesses Welles' fabled charm, his larger-than-life persona and the pesky hubris that would eventually prove to be his downfall, years after the events chronicled in this movie. Me and Orson Welles is not only the director's most unexpected film to date, it's also his most unexpectedly delightful.

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