Richard Linklater‘s Me and Orson Welles (Freestyle, 11.25) is an appealing, decently assembled, light-hearted period…drama? There’s something a little sluggish-sounding about that term that doesn’t quite fit the film’s spirit, and “dramedy” isn’t right either. I guess “coming of age story” works. MAOW only goes so deep but that’s okay for the most part. It’s a pat and tidy effort (i.e., nothing terribly jazzy or unruly in its veins) but with a wound-up, young man’s personality. Agreeably so. The actors and actresses hit their marks, say their lines and do their utmost to be vivid or colorful.

Christian McKay, 34 or 35 during filming of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which had its first showing at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival; Orson Welles at age 22 in 1937, when the film’s story (about Welles’ fascist Italy-flavored production of Julius Casar on Broadway) takes place.

Zac Efron isn’t half bad as a young buck who lands a role in Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Ceasar and experiences the usual wake-ups. He gets hired, inspired, mind-fucked, toyed with, responds like a high-school kid and ends up getting emotionally screwed over as he learns about the exhilarations of acting in a groundbreaking New York stage show as well as the deceit, insincerity, lying, game-playing and two-faced manipulations that go with the territory.

Holly Gent Palmo‘s screenplay, based on Robert Kaplow’s book, takes place 72 friggin’ years ago so it naturally feels…well, not old-fashioned but, you know, “steeped in the atmosphere of a bygone era” and all that. There’s something in the mood and pace of Linklater’s film that suggests it could have easily been performed on live TV for Playhouse 90 back in the ’50s.

And tonally this feels right. Linklater knew what he was doing and shot it the right way with the right flavor and whatnot. He time-tripped back to the world of 1937 and made this piece come alive as best he could, and kudos for that. Even though he must have known from the get-go that Me and Orson Welles would almost certainly be a dead box-office duck.

This period parlor-drama quality is one reason why it took so long to get a theatrical deal after MAOW played at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.

It’s about as far as you can get from a run-of-the-mill Eloi movie, despite the good looking (okay, cute), professionally focused and well-behaved Efron — a female Eloi favorite for his Hairspray and High School Musical roles — playing the lead part of Richard Samuels, who’s supposed to be 17.

The problem is that in this setting/context Efron means absolutely nothing commercially. You could assemble a group of 100 squealing Eloi girls and tell them they have to watch Efron in this new Orson Welles film that starts in 45 minutes or they’ll all be hunted down the next day and machine-gunned to death in their homes, and 10 or 15 of them might buy tickets. Maybe.

But Me and Orson Welles is absolutely worth seeing for Christian McKay‘s thunderbolt performance as the 22 year-old Welles — a tempestuous headstrong genius in his hormonal-visionary cups. Vincent Donofrio was a fine Welles in Ed Wood (although someone else voiced the dialogue) and Liev Schreiber delivered a reasonably full-bodied Welles in RKO 281, but McKay — 34 or 35 when the film was shot, and looking like he could be 28 or 29 — is the madman. He’s the standard-bearer and the king of the hill, the guy to beat the next time somebody plays Welles.

(I’m not counting Jeff BridgesCrazy Heart performance, which has nothing at all to do with Welles — zip! — but which captures the go-for-broke dessication of Welles’ Touch of Evil performance.)

I was a little bit shocked to realize earlier today that Linklater will be 50 next year. The guy who made Slacker is about to sprint through the fastest ten years of his life (when you’re 50-plus a decade takes about four or five years to unfold) before he hits 60 and then 65 and then 70? God, the pace of life really has a way of sneaking up on you from time to time.