Sometimes you should mess with perfection
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 30, 2010
"Charlie St. Cloud," like its star Zac Efron, is a gorgeous, unblemished thing. Both would be much improved with a tiny flaw or two.
Don't get me wrong. Efron is nice to look at. Many moviegoers will no doubt go just to see him smile, and brood, and take off his shirt, which he does with a regularity approaching that of Matthew McConaughey. (There's even a scene where he jumps into a pond in his clothing, turning the movie momentarily into a wet T-shirt contest. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!)
What's more, the 22-year-old (of "High School Musical" fame) is turning into a pretty decent actor. As the titular Charlie, a young man whose guilt and grief over his 11-year-old brother's death -- in a car Charlie was driving -- has paralyzed him emotionally, Efron works hard to make you believe his character's angst. The scenes in which he plays catch with dead brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), with whom Charlie has a daily play date in the woods, are particularly touching. And when Tess (Amanda Crew), a former high school classmate of Charlie's, tries to reconnect with him, Charlie's reluctance to allow himself real-world pleasure is almost palpable.
It's just that the movie, like the man, is a little too perfect.
From the insistently gooey score that pushes and prods you to feel Charlie's pain, to the sparkling cinematography that turns the fictional Pacific Northwest setting of Quincy Bay into an ad for a vacation time share, the movie has a machine-extruded gloss that makes it harder, not easier, to swallow its difficult emotions. You'll want to buy into them -- Efron is a very good salesman -- but they're so smooth and creamy going down, they barely register as feelings at all.
Based on the novel "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud," by Ben Sherwood, the story itself has a predictable arc. A promising high school sailor with an athletic scholarship to Stanford, Charlie has put his plans -- and his life -- on hold after Sam dies, taking on a job as cemetery caretaker so that he can be near his brother, with whom he has a pact to meet every day at sunset. Five years after the accident, when Charlie and Tess start falling for each other, Charlie's connection to Sam, or Sam's spirit, is threatened.
Sam, of course, is a walking metaphor for survivor's guilt. Charlie himself almost died in the accident but was resuscitated by a paramedic (Ray Liotta), whose defibrillator has left scars on Charlie's chest that serve as constant reminders. The self-help-heavy script includes such aphorisms as "You hurt because you're alive" (courtesy of Sam's ghost) and "At some point, we all have to let go" (courtesy of Tess).
Those lines will come as no surprise. What will come as a surprise is something of a plot twist having to do with Charlie's ability to "see" dead people, a result of his having visited the other side. In addition to Sam, Charlie also communes, briefly, with the ghost of another old school chum (Dave Franco), who was killed in Iraq.
I won't spoil things, except to say that this development will probably catch you off guard. It did me. I only wish there were more about the movie that was off-balance.
The sudden loss of equilibrium gives the film, however temporarily, some traction in its gliding progress toward a rather foregone conclusion. Like the minor scrapes and abrasions that appear on Efron's face after the accident, and then fade away -- and like those persistent paddle scars -- it's the most interesting feature about a too slick and only partially satisfying "Charlie St. Cloud."
Contains brief crude language, mild sensuality, a bar fight and a frightening car accident.