Much like its star, Charlie St. Cloud is just a little bit too pretty for comfort.
The film’s poster says it all: “Isn’t Zac Efron just too dreamy for words?” In fact, the whole movie plays out like the bastard child of a Tiger Beat photo spread and one of Hallmark’s drippier greeting cards. That’s really too bad, too, because Efron proved himself a truly capable actor and a genuinely appealing personality in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2009). Of course, almost no one saw that movie — but then, very few folks seem to be beating a path to the golden-hued hooey that is Charlie St. Cloud either.
If you’ve been subjected to the trailer, you already know that the film is all about guilt-ridden Charlie St. Cloud (Efron), who survives a car crash (or in more religio-mystical terms, is given “a second chance”) that kills his little brother, Sam (young Charlie Trahan, who distractingly looks like he’ll grow up to be Steve Zahn).
Charlie has made a promise to his brother’s ghost: He will meet Sam every day “at sunset cannon” and teach Sam how to play baseball. (I suppose if vampires can play baseball — and Twilight has assured us this is so — then so can regular old dead kids.) “Sunset cannon,” you see, is this cannon that’s fired every evening in the little New England town (played by Vancouver, of course) where the action takes place. The setting is all kinds of quaint and picturesque, but more importantly, it allows large chunks of the film to be bathed in the soft, luminous haze of golden sunsets.
Now, since a guy communing with the spirit of his dead brother by showing the kid how to field grounders isn’t exactly compelling drama, the film arranges it so that Charlie — who takes the job of caretaker at the local cemetery — sees all kinds of other dead people as well. (Think of it as 1994’s Cemetery Man minus the zombies.) The movie then adds a nice conflict in the person of Tess Carroll (Amanda Crews), a former sailing competitor of Charlie’s who is about to embark on a solo around-the-world voyage. Tess is attracted to him (or else maybe she just wants beauty tips), and he’s attracted to her. Of course, Charlie can’t move forward in a relationship with her and still continue his ethereal escapades with Sam.
But wait, there’s more! I won’t say what the more is, but it’s likely not very hard to figure out, given the dead-people angle.
The thing is, I have nothing against romantic fantasies, as such. I rank Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948) pretty high on my list of personal favorite movies. I can even accept a certain amount of religio-mystical blather — John M. Stahl’s 1935 film of Lloyd C. Douglas’ spiritual soaper Magnificent Obsession, for instance. But these are films with a certain weightiness of purpose, and they also have a degree of characterization. With Charlie St. Cloud, all we get are ridiculous contrivances and underwhelming plot twists.
I’ll concede that Charlie is slick and glossy, but it also feels too shallow and phony to make me care what happens to the characters who wander through it. That’s the real killer for this kind of assault on the tear-ducts. Rated PG-13 for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality.