Starring: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta
Rated: PG-13 for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality
Running time: 100 minutes
Bottom line: Star vehicle lost at sea
Transitioning from teen idol to serious adult actor is tricky business, and “Charlie St. Cloud” is obviously part of Zac Efron’s attempt to make that move. He recently starred in a Richard Linklater movie called “Me and Orson Welles” which earned strong reviews and zero box office. He then catered to his demographic with “17 Again.” And now, he gets to lead a serious, heart-rending rather than heart-throbbing drama.
This will all likely be good for Efron’s career. The problem for us is that “Charlie St. Cloud” offers very little other than the chance to watch Efron prove he can emote.
It might actually work, though, because the people who will enjoy the movie most are the girls who grew up watching Efron in “High School Musical” and are now young women.
Efron plays the title character, who graduates high school as the movie opens. He’s heading off to Stanford on a sailing scholarship in the fall and promises his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) that they’ll meet each day at sunset to practice baseball, up until Charlie must leave Sam and their single mother (Kim Basinger).
Tragedy strikes when a car accident kills Sam and would have killed Charlie, too, if not for a paramedic named Florio (Ray Liotta) who revives him. Charlie is alive but saddled with unbearable guilt. They were only in the car, after all, because Charlie wanted to go to a friend’s house.
Fast-forward five years, and Charlie is a mess. He didn’t go to college. He lives alone, works as a caretaker for the cemetery where Sam is buried and meets each day at sunset to play catch with Sam.
Is Sam a ghost or a figment of Charlie’s mind? You’ll have to decide.
Charlie then falls in love with a girl named Tess (Amanda Crew), but the relationship threatens to pull Charlie away from Sam.
“Charlie St. Cloud” falls into the same traps that movies of this kind usually do. Rather than let the story tweak our emotions, they force everything until they’ve drained all the genuine drama out of an inherently tragic scenario.
The movie also frequently undercuts itself by telling us what everyone is feeling rather than just showing it. More than once, we see Charlie sulking forlornly around places where he and Sam used to play or gazing at the boat they used to sail together. We already understand what he’s feeling, then Charlie says, to no one, “I miss you.” Thanks for the clarification.
Speaking of all those times when Efron gazes into the distance, this movie is crammed with hero shots. There’s a reason Efron became a heart-throb, and “Charlie St. Cloud” gives us plenty of time to behold his handsome mug. But that certainly doesn’t make for a better movie.
They could have focused on all the complexities created by the death of a child rather than on close-ups of Efron.
Basinger inexplicably disappears after the funeral. We don’t see her grieve or watch how her relationship with Charlie changes. The mother of the family just stops showing up after three scenes, without any explanation. It’s one of the tell-tale signs that this is all orchestrated to highlight Efron and not necessarily to serve the story in the most interesting way.
It also distracts from solid supporting performances by Tahan, Crew and Liotta (nice to see him play a nice guy for a change).
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a major character die but return to interact with the living, nor is it the worst use of that device.
“Charlie St. Cloud” certainly isn’t as nauseating as “The Lovely Bones.”
But I doubt this movie will satisfy anyone who isn’t already an Efron fan. Even those in need of a good cry have better options.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.