There is something hideously amiss with Charlie St Cloud. No, it’s not the fact that waxen-faced supersprog Zac Efron is trying his hand at conventional melodrama. Nor is it that, seemingly for the first time in recent memory, Ray Liotta is playing something other than a sleazy cop or mobster. No, Charlie St Cloud’s chief blight is a woefully – frequently hilariously – misjudged tone which ensures that the film seems unable to decide whether it’s a maudlin character study of a young man unable to get over the death of a sibling or an atypically obnoxious Efron vehicle replete with forced smiles and teen hi-jinks.
The plot, based on Ben Sherwood’s best-selling novel The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, sees Efron’s titular character – a predictably smug, popular and talented young high school graduate with a bright future ahead of him – caught in a horrific car accident, from which he is resuscitated but in which his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan) is killed. Jump-cut to five years later, and Efron is a deadbeat groundsman tending the local graveyard and – honouring a promise made while his brother was still alive – meeting daily with his sibling’s spirit to play baseball. However, when a token love interest (Amanda Crew) pops up, St Cloud must make a choice as to which of these two worlds he belongs in.
Sadly, the film routinely wastes every potentially interesting notion it raises; Charlie St Cloud is a traumatised young man who – whether gifted with extraordinary powers allowing him to converse with those on the other side or driven out of his mind with grief – is struggling to cope with loss and move on with his life, which he has wasted as decisively as the film wastes its half-decent premise.
Predictably, so as to appeal to Efron’s fanbase, a frazzled, distraught outsider is turned into a charmingly quirky brooder, Efron’s spunky heartthrob portrayal arrestingly at odds with both his character’s behaviour and tragic history. Indeed, the Hollywood gloss practically smothers the entire movie – the St Cloud crowd are an insufferably conceited band of WASPS, Efron’s supposedly broken home is as blue-collar as Middle America can tolerate (i.e., hardly at all) and proceedings are permanently accompanied by a ridiculously booming soundtrack, gushing fervently over every minute plot development with all the suitability of a clown at a funeral.
Quite simply, the film’s tone jars spectacularly, culminating with two of the most jaw-droppingly absurd sequences of the year; if watching Efron and his dead brother’s ghost gaily wakeboard together isn’t surreal enough then the scene in which Crew skips seductively through a graveyard before inviting Efron to engage in tombstone-surrounded coitus is enough to drive one to madness. This is compounded by a bafflingly ill-advised comic turn from Augustus Prew, whose squarking cockney antics resemble some demented hybrid of Russell Brand and The Mighty Boosh’s Naboo.
The plot itself, meanwhile, quickly descends into overwrought, dewy-eyed phooey and hokum. Though director Burr Steers (best known for either directing 17 Again or for being shot by Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction) may laud the film’s ambiguity regarding whether St Cloud has indeed been granted supernatural powers or is genuinely deranged, this is dispelled all too quickly and replaced with half-baked philosophy seemingly reheated from M Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Speaking of Shyamalan, the less said about the film’s absurd third act “twist” – actually little more than a kink, as it can easily be guessed from reading the synopsis alone – or the innumerable plot holes it creates the better.
That leaves the performances, which are generally uneven. Efron tries his hardest, working his little cotton socks off in a vain effort to prove to the world his acting prowess; however, he remains bereft of the ability to accurately emote his character’s grief, blubbery puppy-dog eyes staring corpse-like into middle distance to little effect. Efron’s pretty looks certainly get in the way here, as though he seems comfortable portraying the showboating jock of the first 10 minutes, playing an actual human being is beyond his range. Crew, by contrast, is certainly likeable and does her best with an underwritten character whose name might as well be “Ms. Plot D. Vice”, whilst Ray Liotta delivers a nice – albeit hammy – blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance as the paramedic who saves Charlie’s life.
Ultimately, then, Charlie St Cloud is a trifling piece of soft-filter nonsense, which – though admittedly bathed in luscious cinematography and boasting interesting ideas – is let down by a myriad of competing tones and fatally undermined by a parade of gaping plot holes. More like The Sixth Nonsense (groan).