Zac Efron is, like, totally old enough to drink and stuff and gives looking like a grown-up dude his absolute all in the weepy drama Charlie St. Cloud, a ho-hum little drama about dead people and sailing.
Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a champion speed sailor living in a northwestern coastal town who is looking forward to heading to Stanford where he can make good on all the hard work his single mom (Kim Basinger) put in raising him and supporting his rich-kid sport despite their not-rich-kid economic circumstances. His little brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) is proud of his big brother but sad at the prospect of seeing him leave home. Sam gets Charlie to promise to practice baseball with him for his remaining weeks at home — an hour every night before sunset until he leaves town.
The night of Charlie’s high school graduation, his mom heads to work to make some of that Stanford money and Charlie is left to watch Sam. Because Charlie also wants to attend a party to bid farewell to two friends headed to boot camp, he agrees to drive Sam to a friend’s house on his way to the party. Thus the two St. Cloud boys are enjoying brotherly conversation — head smack, serious question, head smack, playful insult, repeat — when their car is hit not once (from behind) but twice (and then from the passenger side). Charlie flat lines but is revived (by paramedic Ray Liotta, no less) but Sam doesn’t make it.
At Sam’s funeral, a distraught Charlie clutches his little brother’s baseball glove — wait for the symbolism — Unable To Let Go. And then, to his great surprise, he sees Sam, on the edge of the cemetery. Charlie follows him to a clearing where Sam announces that he’s ready to start practice — after all, Charlie promised to play with him. Charlie picks up the ball and begins to play the world’s saddest game of catch.
Five years later, Charlie is now the caretaker of the cemetery and, every day, an hour before sunset, is still playing catch with Sam. Charlie and the ghostly Sam joke and wrestle and talk about life. But this daily bit of brotherly fun means that Sam can’t stray far from home — certainly, no more sailing. Both he and Sam are terrified about what would happen if he didn’t show up one evening.
The sudden appearance of Tess (Amanda Crew) gets Charlie thinking about the life he gave up to stay near Sam. Tess, a competitor from Charlie’s high school days, is now a professional sailor about to embark on a race around the world. She is also a girl who seems to have some lingering hots for Charlie.
On which date do you introduce your new girlfriend to the ghost of your dead brother?
Zac Efron wants you to see him as a man, damn it. He PG-13 swears, he drinks, he wants to have sex. Sure, Charlie is living in a state of emotional stasis in a graveyard, but he’s complex. And, sure, one might argue that a quicker way to Something Different from the teen-dream musicals might be a Shia LaBeouf-style action movie but you sense that Efron’s plan is to grow up and still keep those High School Musical fans. The first movie in that series came out in 2006 — the 14-year-old who squealed over him then is now an 18-year-old who might be willing to sigh longingly at him if he could break out of high school. And some emotional bit of glitter and fluff like this movie might keep him from losing any fans still singing along to his earlier work. Charlie St. Cloud is a bridge, if he’s lucky, from teen pin-up to romantic lead.
Efron is trying so hard to cross that bridge that you can see the strain. I kind of think he might have been better served in a comedy, something that didn’t require so much emoting — he did a pretty decent job of it in 17 Again, a movie where he played Matthew Perry’s brain stuck in a more energetic body. But I can also understand his desire to look like a Serious Actor. Understand but not applaud. As parents everywhere say to kids everywhere: slow your roll, youngster; don’t be in such a hurry to wear the big pants.
Charlie St. Cloud is 80 percent all this tiring Efron effort. The rest of the movie fills in around him, all lovely Oregon scenery and sailing porn. Speed sailing gains a few points with this movie — which makes it look both fun and fashionable in that classic, preppy, Ralph Lauren kind of way. The story feels insubstantial in the way that many weepies do — all the forward movement is in “coming to terms,” a fraught emotional journey but not exactly action-packed, chills-and-thrills, story-wise. I found myself being fascinated by the boats or enchanted by some bit of quaint towny real estate but not exactly caring about the characters or their problems.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, in terms of what this movie is supposed to do for Efron. It puts another credit between him and his song-and-dance days and it makes him look very pretty. So, good for him — task accomplished. I don’t know that it needs to involve the rest of us. C-
Rated PG-13 for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality. Directed by Burr Steers and written by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick (from the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood), Charlie St. Cloud is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.