I honestly believe we haven't seen the best that Zac Efron has to offer. The High School Musical star is famous for being a blandly pretty singer and dancer, but he showed off real comedic skill in 17 Again and Hairspray, and seems aware enough of the pitfalls of young fame to make his way toward adulthood unscathed. Of course, any progress out of adolescence is going to involve some growing pains, and Lord is that ever what Charlie St. Cloud is. A movie that basically takes place inside a Thomas Kinkade painting, with Nicholas Sparks-level ideas about human emotion and dramatic conflict. it's like a friend you're not that fond of sobbing sloppily on your shoulder. Zac, we love you, but we really didn't ask for this.
Based on a novel by Ben Sherwood that may very well have been less mawkish and more coherent, Charlie St. Cloud first meets its title character (Efron, of course) on the eve of his high school graduation. He's the kind of poor kid who owns and races a sailboat, the kind of cool kid who hangs out constantly with his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), and the kind of son who merely dreams for his overworked mom (Kim Basinger in what amounts to a cameo) to get a better job. Yeah, you know this kid, but only from movies like this one. Charlie's life changes drastically when a car accident kills Sam and gives Charlie the ability to communicate with the dead-- including, conveniently, Sam. He ditches college plans and takes a job tending a graveyard, where he sticks to himself except for nightly conversations and pitching lessons with Sam in a verdant wood dappled with gold light.
Charlie has spent five years living like this but, conveniently, only when we meet back up with him does he start running into old high school friends, among them Tess (Amanda Crew), a sailor cutie with big plans to sail around the world. She and Charlie only meet cute briefly before she returns from a sailing run and they kick off a big steamy romance, but is his relationship with Tess what it seems? And what about poor Sam, the ghost boy who will be forced to move on to heaven once Charlie lets him go? It's just as creepy as it sounds to see a man torn between the love of a girl his age and the love of his younger brother, and yet that's not even the weirdest thing that happens as Charlie St. Cloud nosedives straight into supernatural nonsense in the third act.
A list of weirder things: The presence of Ray Liotta as a cancer-stricken paramedic who meets up with Charlie for one scene and preaches at him unconvincingly about living life to the fullest. The presence of Donal Logue as a sailing coach named, no joke, Tink Weatherbee. The fact that Zac Efron loses his onscreen virginity (all soft lift and chaste cutaways) in a graveyard, and is woken up the next morning by geese. The fact that this picturesque harbor town pays people to set off cannons every night at sunset-- hasn't anyone there ever protested the use of their tax dollars?
Efron is charged with carrying the weight of all these heavy feelings and at least three crying scenes, but as mesmerizing as his blue eyes are and as much as I know I would have wanted to cuddle with him in a graveyard when I was 17, he's simply not capable of selling it. In quiet moments-- well, relatively quiet, given Rolfe Kent's overbearing score-- we're intended to see the weight of the world in Charlie's eyes, but Efron gives us nothing, and his 17 Again director Burr Steers is equally out of his depth. The two are welcome to collaborate on as many rehashes of 17 Again as they please, but they should be kept far, far away from the wet-eyed histrionics that sink whatever potential there was in Charlie St. Cloud.