“Charlie St. Cloud,” which stars the very swoony Zac Efron as a haunted hunk in need of saving, is a study in restraint when restraint is really the last thing needed here.
Everything about the story screams heartbreaking weepy, from its premise — two brothers, bad car wreck, one dies, the other left with mountains of guilt — to the tears that well up and settle into Efron’s deep sea blue eyes.
So director Burr Steers, who dealt nicely with the young heartthrob’s comedy assets in " 17 Again,” should have dragged us through one gut-wrenching scene after another. But he doesn’t. Too bad, because there are times when the sentimental possibilities are just so shamelessly obvious, and Ben Sherwood’s novel certainly set the stage, that the tragedy should be played for all it’s worth (a la “The Notebook,” sniffle, sniffle). Instead, “Charlie St. Cloud” skims across the surface and the beautiful Pacific Northwest bay where the film was shot — it’s also a sailing story — with Efron trying his best to keep this boat afloat.
The film opens as Charlie (Efron), a working-class kid with an adorable but annoying younger brother, Sam (a very engaging Charlie Tahan), is slicing through rough waters in his dingy, racing against the well-turned-out rich kids in the local regatta. But our hero, with help from his little bro, wins the race, just another success to go with top grades and the sailing scholarship to Stanford.
This kid clearly has promise, but in case you haven’t figured that out by now, the school principal says, “I expect great things from you,” when he hands over that hard-earned diploma, while Sam and their equally hard-working single mom ( Kim Basinger) proudly look on. Meanwhile, young Sam has a baseball jones for the Boston Red Sox and Charlie agrees to play catch with him every night until he heads off to college in the fall.
But into every life some rain must fall and soon there it is — a dark and raining night, a drunk driver, a crash, a crash-cart manned by paramedic Ray Liotta and everything changes for Charlie, who’s brought back to life only to be faced with burying Sam.
Now here’s where things really get mystical and spiritual, two elements that have befuddled some of the best filmmakers around, as Peter Jackson’s disappointing “The Lovely Bones” reminded us last year. Steers is not immune to the difficulties as he deals with the fact that Sam is dead, but he’s not exactly gone either. The filmmaker opts for a very thin line between the real and the ethereal, or really more like no line, though director of photography Enrique Chediak does a nice job of making whatever reality Charlie is in beautiful.
Flash forward five years. Mom’s left for Portland, Ore.; Charlie’s beloved dingy is dry-docked; his Stanford sailing plans have been scuttled. Instead, he’s a caretaker at the cemetery where Sam is buried, and just before sunset each day, Sam materializes and the brothers play catch and talk about life.
Enter Tess ( Amanda Crew), a former classmate back home prepping for a solo sail around the world and clearly love interest material for Charlie. Here’s where things start speeding up (finally) with screenwriters Craig Pearce (who often writes with director Baz Luhrmann, “Moulin Rouge!” among others) and Lewis Colick (“Ladder 49") throwing in everything but the kitchen sink including: raging storms, nonessential anniversary parties, badly maintained grave sites, to say nothing of a bunch of one-note scenes for various ancillary characters and heavy-handed dialogue like, “God has a plan for you.”
The central conceit of the film turns on Tess, the one person in Charlie’s life who actually might help him come to terms with Sam’s death. But the film zips through their early encounters so quickly, the actors barely have time to spell “chemistry” much less develop any. So, when Charlie’s “Sophie’s Choice” moment comes, it’s not nearly as painful or as emotional as it should be.
The good news is that Efron continues to get better with each film; he just hasn’t gotten a role yet that will finally put his acting potential to the test. So, for now, Efron remains an unrealized dream and “Charlie St. Cloud” an unrealized movie, though judging from the “ooohhs” and “awwwws” from the audience, for his core tween-girl fans, that’s more than enough.