Charlie St. Cloud sees dead people. Possibly filing in to watch this movie. Although the storyline of “Charlie St. Cloud” has some nice love-after-death twists, and the imagery — gleaming harbor-town nightscapes and sleek sailboats skudding across the water — has been beautifully rendered, the picture is becalmed by the star performance at its center.
Charlie (Zac Efron) lives for sailing, and as the movie opens, in his briny hometown on the Washington coast, he’s preparing to leave for Stanford University in the fall on a sailing scholarship. Despite his resemblance to Zac Efron, Charlie doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s entirely devoted to his mother (a minimal appearance by Kim Basinger) and especially his little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan, talented beyond the call of cuteness). Sam lives for baseball, and Charlie coaches him with daily pitching practice in a clearing in some nearby woods. Charlie tells Sam he’ll always be there for him. But then there’s a car crash; Sam is killed, but Charlie, although briefly flatlined, survives.
Five years later, we find Charlie working as a caretaker at the local cemetery. He canceled his Stanford plans because … well, because he told Sam he’d always be there for him. And Sam is still there, turning up in the woods every evening for their regular pitching sessions. Presumably Charlie has decided to spend the rest of his life as an undead-baseball coach. But then he meets the beautiful Tess (Amanda Crew), an avid sailor herself, who’s gearing up for an around-the-world race in her elegant yacht. As Charlie and Tess fall in love, Sam, with no other earthly hobbies to occupy his time, watches them with growing unease (possibly even observing the movie’s lone sex scene, a coupling so discreet it barely rises to the level of PG-13). “I could feel you forgetting me,” he tells Charlie. “Without you, I feel myself start to disappear.”
This basic plot conflict grows even slushier following a second tragedy, which introduces another level of lovelorn ambiguity. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Tahan and Crew (who injects some liveliness into the otherwise turgid proceedings), the real love story at the heart of the picture is the sultry union of Zac Efron and director Burr Steers’ camera. Efron, such a charmer in last year’s “17 Again,” is a hopeless mope here, acting mainly with his burnished tan and his bioluminescent blue eyes, which we all too often see welling with tears. Charlie stares out to sea. He stares into his soul. He suffers and suffers, and his muffled torment, even when backgrounded by glorious coastal sunsets, grows oppressive. We want Efron to jack this character up to another emotional level, to manifest some personality, but he just keeps wallowing in heartbreak. So while Charlie keeps seeing dead people (there’s also a deceased buddy on hand), we’re left watching a dead movie.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Dinner For Schmucks,” also new in theaters this week.
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