Theatrical Review: CHARLIE ST. CLOUD

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
August 1st, 2010

Rating: 2/5
Writers: Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick (screenplay), Ben Sherwood (novel)
Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Donal Logue, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta
Studio: Universal Pictures

Zac Efron can see his dead brother. And he likes to play catch with him every evening at sunset. Sweet, right? Touching? Not so fast. CHARLIE ST. CLOUD (based on the book The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud – oh, context clues!) attempts to fashion itself into some sort of bizarre amalgamation of THE SIXTH SENSE and INCEPTION for the tween set. It falls at almost every turn – wasting its at least mildly interesting source material and the eager puppy charm of Efron.

Efron’s Charlie St. Cloud had just about everything going for him as the talented sailor graduates high school. Living in the tiny town of Quincy, St. Cloud is both an athlete and a student. He’s on his way to Stanford to flex both his mind and his muscles. But Charlie is hung up on leaving behind his little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). The St. Clouds are a family of three (plus Kim Basinger as Mama St. Cloud, who, like Ray Liotta, is utterly wasted in the bare minimum of scenes she appears in), and Charlie clearly feels the need to protect and mentor his little brother, who also serves as his faithful skipper. In short order, the tragedy of CHARLIE ST. CLOUD so splashed among the film’s marketing occurs – Sam dies in a car accident, Charlie barely comes back from the edge of death, and that miracle of seeming rebirth sees Charlie able to still play baseball with his little brother every night.

There are further twists in the world of CHARLIE ST. CLOUD that should surprise audiences (even Efron devotees who have memorized the trailer). The film plays a bit with pacing and timing to often very positive effect, but when more complicated turns and tricks are attempted, the film falls stunningly flat. Films like CHARLIE ST. CLOUD, films that attempt to go beyond their basic parts to have some sort of deeper message and curiously mystical elements, can fail in the most simple of ways.

The film rarely gives any sort of payback to some of its most constant of recurring themes. The beginning of the film is infused with several discussions about the financial situation of the St. Clouds, as their hometown of Quincy seems to skew to the rich, while the St. Clouds must tough it out with scholarships and old Volvos. There’s also something about geese in the graveyard. Unless those damn geese are ghost geese, they are a frequently distracting bit with no callback value. There’s also Sam’s obsession with baseball, which is given a throwaway reason about the absentee St. Cloud dad. Oh, and there's also a romance buried in here somewhere, but it's too chemistry-free to get much notice.

But the main problem with CHARLIE ST. CLOUD is that it never gives us a set of rules for what we’re expected to believe – either in terms of who Charlie is or what Charlie can do. This sloppiness detracts from whatever it is the film is trying to impart on the audience – is it something about everyone having a purpose in life, or that there are no lost causes, or the omnipotence of God? Charlie may be able to see his dead brother, but the set of rules ascribed to how that miracle works don’t seem to apply across the board in the film, and it turns the whole endeavor into something both confusing and boring. It’s hard to play along with whatever CHARLIE wants us to play along with, because we simply never know what that is or how the heck it is supposed to work.

For his first true leading man outing, Zac Efron certainly tries mightily with the material. While the death and life of Charlie St. Cloud may be frequently murky, Efron continually tries to infuse what is lacking intellectually with unrestrained emotion. Charlie gets to be angry and sad, haunted and ebullient, brotherly and romantic, and Efron does his best to distract from the mess of framework that goes along with it. It’s unfortunate for him that CHARLIE ST. CLOUD is cinematically lost at sea, rudderless.


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