Zac Efron, the impossibly beautiful young Ben and Jerry’s confection who is doing everything humanly possible to grow from Flavor of the Year to Force of the Future, stands head and shoulders above most of his peers in the get-famous business. I didn’t see the High School Musicals that catapulted him to teenage royalty, but he showed real range and dedication to craft in the underrated Me and Orson Welles. Promise now turns to polish in the sincere but saccharine romance vehicle Charlie St. Cloud. The movie isn’t much, but no more debate. Zac Efron can act.
Meanwhile, the movie coasts along on close-ups of Zac Efron’s face in an inexhaustible attempt to prove the camera can capture a great deal more than the reflection of just another pretty face. The camera loses.
Burr Steers, who did an admirable job with Igby Goes Down, tries again to invest a quaint story with appealing oddball allure, but the story resists charm on every level except Mr. Efron’s performance in the title role. Charlie is captain of his high-school sailing team with a bright future and a waiting scholarship at Stanford when his worshipful 11-year-old brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), is killed in a violent automobile accident with Charlie at the wheel. Traumatized by guilt, unable to shake his feelings of responsibility, Charlie devotes himself to a pact he made with his sibling to stick together forever. Five years later, he has given up his talent and passion for boats and taken a job as caretaker in the cemetery where Sam is buried. Locked in his own grief, Charlie is visited by the ghosts of dead school chums who lost their lives in the war; by the paramedic (Ray Liotta) who pulled him from the wreck after he flatlined; and by the ghost of Sam, who joins him water sledding with garbage can lids on their feet and plays baseball with Charlie every day at sunset with his old catcher’s mitt. Angry and sad, without love, optimism or any hope for the future, Charlie has withdrawn from real life too early. Of course, nobody who looks like Zac Efron can retire from anything before he’s eventually discovered-by a talent scout with dollar signs in his eyes or a girl with raging hormones in her jeans.
The girl is Tess (Amanda Crew), a spirited contestant in a championship sailboat race around the world. Charlie shows her the depressing cottage where he lives with all of Sam’s possessions packed into moldy boxes, and his bed, where, this being a Zac Efron movie, he gets a chance to try out the sheets and strip, to the screams of foxy teenage ticket buyers. Did I fail to mention that Charlie’s mother is played by Kim Basinger, in a walk-on so brief it redefines the term “cameo”? (She doesn’t even live in the same town.) Eventually, Charlie gets his chance to rejoin the living when Tess is lost at sea and he sets out to prove she’s still alive, even though it means deserting the ghost of his kid brother to do it. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. Meanwhile, the movie coasts along on close-ups of Zac Efron’s face in an inexhaustible attempt to prove the camera can capture a great deal more than the reflection of just another pretty face. The camera loses.
Like Brad Pitt, and Robert Redford before him, this is a young man who may have to grow a beard or otherwise disfigure himself to be taken seriously. The camera practically makes love to him, moving in for angles and emotions to make audiences swoon. Zac looking up. Zac looking down. Zac in profile. Zac with tears clouding his perfect blue eyes. Zac looking pensive. Zac looking misty-eyed. This is a crime, because there is serious evidence that he adds up to more than eye candy. The script by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick is so sappy you want to laugh. It’s even inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem about taking chances that made me gag. In fairness, it’s not about video games, computer technology, screeching rock ‘n’ roll or teenage vampires. So my tendency is to be tolerant (and grateful). One thing that defies debate: Zac Efron is going places as an actor of value. But he deserves better movies than Charlie St. Cloud.
CHARLIE ST. CLOUD
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick
Directed by Burr Steers
Starring Zac Efron, Amanda Crew, Charlie Tahan, Kim Basinger and Ray Liotta
2 Eyeballs out of 4