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Zac Efron loses kid brother, slips into serious depression, and still retains flawless skin in 'Charlie St. Cloud'

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"I see dead people""charlie St. Cloud" opens today. Photo: Universal Pictures.

What does Charlie St. Cloud  teach us? That Zac Efron  can be photographed from any angle and still look like a living Ken doll? That Kim Basinger can sport 30 seconds of screen time and still get billing? Oh yeah, and maybe it’s supposed to teach us a lesson about death and grieving and how life is for living?

This expectedly corny, would-be weepie of a teen film starring heartthrob Efron attempts to answer all those burning questions during its running time. Based on the book originally called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood, Cloud starts off promising but then slowly wades into safe, shallow waters by the time silly climax washes ashore.

The story (summarized in the two minute trailer) starts with Charlie’s graduation from high school and the summer that follows. The early scenes illustrate the bond Charlie forms with his brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), a spitfire of a kid who bears an obvious adoration for Charlie. One fateful night, Sam catches Charlie sneaking out to a party, and coerces him into hitching a ride to his friend’s house. Along the way, there is a devastating crash, and Sam is killed.

The film then flashes forward five years and Charlie is still a very fractured place mentally. Abandoning his sailor scholarship to Stanford, he now spends his days mowing the lawn in a graveyard and talking to dead people, one of them being his little brother, who Sam still believes to be alive in some form. Every day Charlie heads into the forest to play catch with him, and the bizarre behavior certainly has caused chatter among the townsfolk, who have deemed him certifiable.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Tess (Amanda Crew), who still pursues the loon despite the warnings of everyone else. Now an expert sailor determined to take her boat around the world, Tess also awakens something in a Charlie, a thirst for life that hasn’t been ignited since his brother passed years back. Soon, those games of imaginary catch between the two are sacrificed for alone time with Tess. When the plot takes an unexpected (or expected, if you have a brain) turn, Charlie must make a difficult choice in order to move forward.

There are a few moments early on in Charlie St. Cloud when the film shows some actual potential. Initially, Charlie’s condition is interpreted as some sort of serious post-traumatic stress disorder, and the indication is that the character is very delusional. In one affecting instance, Charlie holds a conversation with a high school bud that has since died in the war, completely unaware that he has actually passed on. Moments like that are far more interesting than where the plot actually takes the movie, which winds up in Disney territory. Charlie’s weird affliction is re-interpreted as a gift rather than a handicap, and the movie settles for pat resolutions to serious real life problems.

Director Burr Steers also helmed the breezy 17 Again, which Efron also headlined. Steers faired much better with the lighter tone of that film. He is out of his league here trying to merge heavier dramatic elements into the mix. The tone fluctuates awkwardly between inspirational and dreary, carried through only by Efron, who once again proves a magnificent screen presence. Efron easily carried 17 Again, yet even with this dodgy material, his star power manages to hold the film together and deem it watchable.

Charlie St. Cloud is an odd film that likely won’t satisfy Zach’s tween fan base or lure any new viewers in. The story may have worked in the written form, but on film it’s merely a soggy, predictable drama that passes the time and nothing more. Keep your eyes on Efron though. The rising star is definitely one to watch once he transitions out of these mediocre family films.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photos Courtesy of Universal Pictures