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Bad boys receive top billing in 'Orson Welles'

Special Photo: CinemaNX. Zac Efron, left, and Claire Danes star in "Me and Orson Welles."

Special Photo: CinemaNX. Zac Efron, left, and Claire Danes star in "Me and Orson Welles."

Me and Orson Welles (PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Although wildly different in subject matter and approach, this week's "Invictus" and "Me and Orson Welles" share some common threads. Both movies examine single events in the lives of two larger-than-life figures told mostly from the perspectives of other lesser-known men. Both fail to tell us anything we didn't already know about their principal subjects — one humble, the other a maniacal control freak.

"Me and Orson Welles" is the most successful of the two and more fun to watch because movies about nice guys aren't nearly as interesting as those about bad boys. Nine times out of 10, the villain is the most complex and alluring character in a movie, and while Welles (Christian McKay) doesn't exactly fit the definition of "villain" here, he is the film's obvious antagonist.

Out of the nearly two dozen big and small screen productions featuring Welles as a character, no one as gotten as close to capturing the authentic look, speech and essence of the genuine article as the English-born McKay. Every time McKay is on the screen, he receives our undivided attention and everyone else is regulated to window dressing. Welles was a force of nature and McKay embodies his bulldozing spirit without parroting him.

This is good news for McKay and the audience but maybe not so much for leading man Zac Efron or his character Richard Samuels. Known mostly for his role in the "High School Musical" franchise, Efron was wise to take this almost thankless role at this critical point in his career.

Even though the recent "17 Again" freed Efron slightly from his squeaky-clean image, it did nothing to change the opinion of his rabid, teenybopper fan-base. It's unlikely any pre- or early teen girls will find much to like about Efron in this movie and for that he should be very happy. He isn't great here but he holds his own and more than delivers his character the wide-eyed, greenhorn wonderment it demands.

It's late 1937 and Richard is a high school student in rural New York who is so infected by the acting bug he plays extended hooky and visits Manhattan in the hopes of catching a break. While hanging out in front of the Mercury Theater he uses his musical skills to grab the attention of Welles, and it works. Welles casts Richard in the role of Lucius in his upcoming production of "Julius Caesar" on the spot.

Over the next six days, we get an enlightening perspective of what can and usually will go wrong during the lead-up to a Broadway play and it is riveting. Although given wise advice from the company secretary (Claire Danes) and Welles' long-time cohort Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), Richard denies reality for far too long and painfully learns his first show-biz lesson.

While still decidedly art-house with his methods, this is the most realized and commercially accessible effort from director Richard Linklater since the 1993 "Dazed & Confused." A successful period-piece requires more than authentic costume and set designs and Linklater wisely resists micromanaging and lets his actors and technical people play loose. No one looks like they're trying too hard and, reconsidering most of the movie shows people rehearsing (badly), that's high praise.

Needless to say, this movie is essential for any Welles devotee and, even though they don't know it yet, Efron fans. He sings a bit but doesn't dance and does something that might be painful for a lot of young girls. He leaves "High School" behind and moves on. (Freestyle Releasing)