His latest film marks a rise, and a dip, on Zac Efron's creative trajectory.
Moving away from the song-and-dance silliness of Hairspray and High School Musical, he takes a half-step toward becoming a mature romantic lead. The film itself? Not so good.
Charlie St. Cloud is an over- sentimental effort that incorporates love, family drama, bereavement, comedy, seagoing adventure and mystical uplift, like a Baskin-Robbins cone precariously balancing all 31 flavors. The nice thing is that Efron is not complacently relying on his looks, like a junior varsity Ben Affleck.
Charlie is a champion sailor with an athletic scholarship to Stanford when a horrible mistake ruins his dreams. His promising future crushed, Charlie signs on as caretaker of the local cemetery, where his cottage is a hideaway. He's locked in his own head, lonely, unable to connect. Who will rescue this forlorn, emotionally withdrawn dreamboat? Could it be feisty, beautiful Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), a former classmate who plans to be one of the first women to sail solo around the globe?
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Who saves whom and how is one of the film's secrets, but fans of Titanic and Ghost will get the feeling they're watching a double feature. The trauma that derailed Charlie's life gave him the ability to see spirits. We interpret his visions as symbols of his unresolved emotional issues. It turns out the apparitions are real, and they play a key role in the melodramatic finale. Fans of transcendent love stories like to believe that our souls can do impossible things, so let them have their fun.
Efron aims to stretch beyond bland, boyish affability, but he doesn't have the rebel reflexes of a natural antihero or the acting technique to convert moping and brooding into a poetic statement. The scene in which he turns to Jack Daniel's for solace is badly off-key.
But it's clear that Efron is working at it. He's downplaying his natural confidence, trying on dark, complicated emotions. There's a moment of genuine drama when a taunting former classmate pops up to sneer and Charlie snaps. He comes off not as a hero confronting a bully but as a guy who needs to get a grip on himself. Again, not groundbreaking, but it's a move in the right direction.
Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) captures a New England seaside community, with its blue-collar coffee shops and townie saloons.
Efron and Charlie Tahan, as his cheeky little brother, have the best moments and show a cantankerous chemistry. The other actors fare poorly. Crews is an underdeveloped love interest — other than being able to pilot a 50-foot sailboat, it's not clear what's special about her. Ray Liotta and Kim Basinger are squandered in brief cameos. But we must understand what this project is: a mainstream star vehicle for a matinee idol who sets teen hearts aflutter. Charlie St. Cloud will have them snapping in the breeze like so many spinnakers. The rest of us will be a bit seasick.