Orson Welles, that brilliant beast of the prewar theatre jungle, is here reduced to a gentle moggy in Richard Linklater's sentimental-romantic drama set amidst the excitement of Welles's 1937 production of Julius Caesar in New York.
Christian McKay gives a game impersonation of the young Welles, being mercurial, demanding, impossible, etc, as he mounts a challenging new modern-dress "fascist-militarist" version of Caesar – reminding isolationist Americans of the gathering storm across the Atlantic. Zac Efron is Richard, the pushy, stagestruck teen who amuses Welles and flukes his way into a small part; Claire Danes is the beautiful young theatre assistant with whom Richard falls in love, only to find the affections of this ambitious young woman are engaged elsewhere.
As so often with films reverently dealing with theatre folk, the directing itself becomes exasperatingly theatrical and inert. The focus is soft, and so are the ideas. Welles is a vowel-rolling ham who never really scares or upsets anyone – even his final crisis with young Richard isn't really painful. Tim Robbins's 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, set in very much the same time and place, also suffered from nostalgia and ancestor-worship.
There is one nice moment, when Welles improvises a new section for a radio performance of The Front Page, inserting a passage from The Magnificent Ambersons. That gave a hint of the man's cheek and his style. The rest has the taste of warm Paul Masson.