A coming of age story of a young teenager trying to break into acting, who gets a break to be in Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar. This is before War of the Worlds, before his big film masterpiece Citizen Kane, the penultimate moment in Welles’ meteoric career. This appears to be a fictional romance set within an historical event. Zac Efron plays Richard, the young lead, who is 17 or so, still at home with his conventional suburban mother yet yearning for the romance of the theatre. He worms his way into the production by impressing Welles with his wit and confidence, and summarily falls for the troupe’s secretary, Sonja, played by Claire Danes. He ultimately loses his virginity to Sonja and consequently falls head over heels in love with her. He waxes eloquent with expressions of undying love worthy of the bard himself, that is, Shakespeare. But his innocence is lost when he discovers that Sonja sleeps with Welles and will do so with famous movie producer David Selznick, in order to advance her career.
Though Richard is crushed, he begins to re-notice a girl he had previously met, another innocent high school girl with ambitions of getting her poetry published. At the end, Richard meets back up with her and we get the impression that he will pursue this relationship as a sort of consolation prize, or return to innocence.
This film explores the loss of innocence in a head on collision with the cynical reality of the entertainment world of theatre, a world that perceives itself in the words of Welles, as “saving the dignity of man,” yet contrarily lives undignified immoral lives because, again in the words of Welles, “Our business is to create the best art. That’s all that matters.” Since the artist embodies moral truth in their art, they don’t need to actually live morally or truthfully in their personal lives. One is reminded of the cliché self delusion of the actor who thinks they can speak with authority because “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on television,” as if pretending confers any reality upon the individual’s experience.
Welles’ egocentric, self-obsessed, fame obsessed, prurient selfishness becomes the symbolic epitomy of this world that is larger than life, and indeed, a façade for real life. The Welles character is deliberately overplayed like a 1940s histrionic movie character, speaking as if he is always delivering lines. This embodies a “life as imitation of art” that reflects the ultimate fraudulence of that world. But this is all done lovingly by the writer/director, not with animosity for that world, but with a seeming longing for lost innocence amidst his own love of the art.