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Every now and then a brave filmmaker can’t resist the temptation of making a metaphysical film that somehow will manage to portray everlasting love on the screen, that will somehow show a romantic idealism so great that it transcends even the boundaries between the living and dead. This is a temptation filmmakers need seriously to resist.
“Charlie St. Cloud,” from director Burr Steers, who made the estimable “Igby Goes Down,” is the latest to take on this foolhardy task, and the film doesn’t just fail, it actually gets sillier by the minute. There is little worse in movies than earnestness hitched to the wrong project.
Media notes claim the source material, a novel by Ben Sherwood, received sufficient acclaim to get translated into 15 languages, so perhaps there are enough worldwide romantics to create a modest cult following around “Charlie.” It happened with “Somewhere in Time” (1980) and “What Dreams May Come” (1998), admittedly much different kinds of movies and much grander in their pretensions and earnestness. But the guess is that “Charlie,” more modest but therefore less cult-ready, doesn’t stand a chance.
One problem — there are many, but let’s focus on this — is that the metaphysical rules keep changing. Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) is a small-town sailing hero of whom great things are expected. But he loses all ambition after a car accident that he “miraculously” survives but kills his kid brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). Afterward, to quote from another film, Charlie sees dead people.
Or does he?
For the next five years, he plays catch with Sam every evening at sunset in the woods near the cemetery. He chats with a high school buddy, killed as a marine in the Middle East, near his gravestone. Then, later in the film, he sees another dead person who, well … turns out, isn’t really dead. So are these spectral appearances real or dreams? Only writers Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick know for sure.
Charlie’s obsessive love for his late brother has caused him to turn down a college scholarship and take a job as live-in caretaker at the cemetery. He seemingly has no friends other than a fellow groundskeeper (Augustus Prew), but the film treats this oddness as nothing more than someone marching to the (up)beat of a different drummer.
When Charlie and Sam play in a rainstorm, Rolfe Kent’s music cheers them on, and the editing of this montage is snappy and happy. Silly comedy is made of Charlie and his cemetery mate trying unsuccessfully to chase away the geese that inhabit the grounds but make their jobs more difficult. Charlie even meets a cute girl tending her father’s grave. Isn’t life just peachy here in the cemetery?
In other words, there is nothing weird or creepy about a guy obsessed with a dead brother. Any more than there is when the paramedic (Ray Liotta), who rescued and miraculously revived Charlie, suddenly reappears in his life with terminal cancer and the message that Charlie was saved for “a reason.”
Speaking of sudden reappearances, a former high school classmate named Tess (Amanda Crew) abruptly appears on Charlie’s radar. Where has she been for five years? Nevermind, she is the one person in this small seacoast town, presumably Oregon but really British Columbia, who doesn’t think Charlie is a nut job. Must be because she is a fellow sailor. Indeed, she is about to embark on a major international solo race. Despite her departure in a week, Charlie is torn between Sam the Dead and Tess the Living.
Things do get sillier, but to explain would involve spoilers. Let’s just say that the last movie character who had storms and atmospheric electrical charges to guide him to his destiny was played by Charlton Heston.
Efron plays Charlie as your average young movie-star hunk. He takes off his shirt frequently but looks ungainly and stilted in his beefcake poses. Tahan and Crew are much more natural, though the same can’t be said for Liotta and Kim Basinger in the thankless role of Charlie’s mostly offscreen mother.
Credits in this Universal-produced movie are studio-slick, but the film cries out for a grungy Sundance look that would indicate something weird is going on. Otherwise, this is a labor-intensive and seriously ill-conceived way to win a girl’s heart.
Opens: July 30 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures presents in association with Relativity Media a Marc Platt production
Cast: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Angustus Prew, Donal Logue, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta, Dave Franco, Matt Ward, Miles Chambers
Director: Burr Steers
Screenwriters: Craig Pearce, Lewis Colick
Base on the novel by: Ben Sherwood
Producer: Marc Platt
Executive producers: Michael Fottrell, Ryan Kavanaugh, Ben Sherwood, Jared LeBoff, Adam Siegel
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Ida Random
Music: Rolfe Kent
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Rated PG-13, 100 minutes
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