Review: 'Charlie St. Cloud' - One Efron Away From Being Awful
by Jeremy Kirk
July 30, 2010
"Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward." As we learn from the titular and ghost-seeing character in the new film, Charlie St. Cloud, this quote from poet E.E. Cummings is about taking chances. It couldn't literally be about stars walking backward. That's just silly. Chances. The act of stepping outside your boundaries and doing something far from your own comfort zone, almost reckless even, that may be met with absolute success or outright failure.
Unfortunately, the people behind Charlie St. Cloud may be looking for stars to walk backward or seas to actually catch fire (let's put those Louisiana jokes back in the box), because the film they have created is one without chances, without risks of any kind, really, and the series of poor choices creates a saccharine web of lame dialogue and unimaginative plot points. It should have been called White Noise instead for a number of reasons.
Charlie, played by Zac Efron, is a highly successful high schooler. He has just received a boating scholarship to his college of choice and his loving mother and younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), support him in everything. Everything changes one night when Charlie and Sam are in a violent car crash, one that kills Sam and leaves Charlie flat-lined for a few moments. When Charlie miraculously comes to, though, he finds he can see Sam's apparition. Thinking it is the ghost of his dead brother, Charlie makes a promise to meet Sam in the woods every day at the same time so neither of them are forced to face life or afterlife alone.
Five years pass, and Charlie, honoring the promise he made, stays grounded to his hometown and connected to his long-lost brother by the guilt inside him. It isn't until a girl from Charlie's past comes back into his life that the possibilities of breaking away from the ghostly image comes to the forefront of Charlie's head. Once that happens, though, Charlie finds himself torn between the promise of a life and the promise he once made to the dead.
The problems with Charlie St. Cloud, really one, serious problem that rears its ugly head throughout the course of the film, are evident from the first scene. It involves a boat race with Charlie and Sam, not yet expired to the land of mystical catch-playing. The tone in this scene, as is the case with the tone throughout the film, is all wrong. Directed by Burr Steers, the man who brought us the surprisingly comical 17 Again last year, the opening scene is paced and shot like an action film complete with fast-moving helicopter shots that zoom into the brothers' boat as if it were a police cruiser chasing a boat full of drug dealers. Any scene should never be shot this frantically without bullets flying and squibs popping.
It all comes down to choices, really. How does one approach the scene at hand? What underlying feel should the filmmaker be going for based on what the screenplay calls for? Sadly, Steers seems to make one poor choice after another. The moments between Charlie and Amanda Crew (Tess Carroll) as the girl who walked back into his life (I seriously think that might be her character name) are genuinely brutal. Moments after these scenes present themselves, we are offered flashbacks to them for specific reasons, and the second time is even more brutal than the first. Charlie St. Cloud never feels like its own film, but, rather, a series of themes, ideas, and styles that are thrown in simply because that's what this type of heart-string tugger is meant to include.
Unfortunately, the only thing successfully tugged or even moved throughout Charlie St. Cloud is the viewers' patience, as it wears thin. By the time other ghosts and plodding left turns thrown into Charlie's world come around, we simply don't care. We just want his brother to walk into the light of the afterlife so that we can walk into the light of the theater lobby.
If there is a success to be found in Charlie St. Cloud, it's in the emotional weight Efron brings to the main character. Appearing in virtually every scene, his performance very nearly saves the film from being a complete waste. The emotions that rise from the character might be lost on Steers, but Efron seems to know where they need to go. He presents them in every distant look and in every tear he pinches out of his eyes. It really is a travesty to see such a fine actor giving such an impeccable performance in a film that has absolutely zero emotional movement elsewhere.
The saccharine identity strewn throughout Charlie St. Cloud is hardly forgivable. The film's finale takes place at sea with Charlie and two others (Donal Logue in one of the film's many wasted roles; Don't even get me started on Kim Basinger as Charlie's absent mother or Ray Liotta as the devout paramedic who brought Charlie back to life) making a daring rescue attempt. At what or who is probably best left for those who want to view the film spoiler-free, but it really doesn't matter. The one thing they can't rescue is the water-drenched celluloid used to shoot it all. That's not salt water they're treading across. It's sugar water, and the bitter aftertaste hits very soon after consuming.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10