Zac Efron neither sings and dances nor plays basketball in “Charlie St. Cloud,” and that turns out to be a real mistake. He’s just not the same fellow when he’s sailing yachts, pitching baseballs and moping around over the death of a younger brother. One can admire the actor for wanting a change of pace to show his range, but this maudlin, manipulative tearjerker about overcoming grief and moving on with one’s life was certainly an error in judgment.
It’s also, despite its gloomy obsession with death, extremely silly. Efron plays the title character, a star Washington State high school senior who’s preparing to go to Stanford on a sailing scholarship, though his single mom (Kim Basinger) struggles to make ends meet with double and triple shifts in her hospital job. But all his plans go out the window when his beloved brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) is killed in a car crash when Charlie was driving.
Five years later St. Cloud’s mother has moved away to Portland, and he’s in emotional limbo, living in seclusion while holding down a job as caretaker of the local cemetery. Why? Because before the accident Charlie had promised Sam that before going off to college he’d meet him every day at sunset to practice baseball for an hour. And for five years he’s done precisely that—because Sam’s spirit, unchanged, waits every day at dusk in the woods beside the cemetery for him.
Charlie, in other words, sees dead people—not just Sam, but on one occasion his old high school buddy Sully (Dave Franco, with a mouthful of beautiful teeth not unlike those of his brother James), who went off to fight in Iraq and was killed there. Of course Charlie’s condition is basically an expression of his enormous guilt over the death of Sam; he feels responsible, and the feeling has trapped him for half a decade. It’s exacerbated by the fact that he not only survived but did so miraculously, as paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta), who bumps into him (and is himself terminally ill), impresses on him; surely, Ferrente argues, the second chance Charlie was given means that God has some special purpose for him—and after Florio’s death, his wife brings Charlie the paramedic’s St. Jude medal, which represents the power to do extraordinary things.
Through all this stuff Efron moons about, sighs and suffers extravagantly even as his co-worker and pal, exuberant groundsman Alistair (Augustus Prew) tries to draw him out of his shell. But the real change in his life comes when he links up with Tess (Amanda Crew), a champion yachtswoman who’s about to embark on a round-the-world race. They hit it off, though her coach (Donal Logue) has doubts about him—as do many locals, who consider him odd, even flaky. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal how their relationship alters Charlie’s circumstances, but it’s safe to say it’s a catalyst for his transformation, however halting.
Efron is an extremely engaging screen presence, with genuine star quality. But here he simply works too hard, and comes across like a soap opera hunk trapped in a grossly melodramatic arc. It doesn’t help that cinematographer Enrique Chediak shoots the picture like a glossy magazine spread. Yes, the Pacific Northwest locations are gorgeous, and the widescreen images (backed by Rolfe Kent’s swooning score) magnificent. But the style often makes Efron look more like a model than an actor. And he doesn’t get much support from director Burr Steers, who lays on the schmaltz without mercy, or his co-stars. Little Tahan is fine but unexceptional, and so is Crew. Basinger has little more than a cameo, and Liotta comes on too strong. Logue is a genial fellow, but I doubt that anybody could pull off a role where the character is named Tink. Then there’s Prew, who exhibits a gleeful energy that’s welcome, given the grim surroundings, but still feels totally at odds with the rest of the movie.
Without spoiling the twists in the last act of “Charlie St. Cloud,” one can say that it becomes a morose fable of loss and redemption that strains much too hard for spiritual uplift. And most of the heavy lifting is put on the shoulders of Efron, whose very real charm suffers under the strain. St. Jude, as the script helpfully explains, is the patron of hopeless cases, but even his presence can’t save this picture.