Universal // 2010 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // November 22nd, 2010
"Rain or shine, through hell or high water."
Life Is For Living.
Charlie (Zac Efron, Hairspray) stands with the world at his feet. His mother adores him, while his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend, idolizes him. Furthermore, he's something of a hero to the folk of his town due to his prowess as a sailor, which has earned him a scholarship to Stanford. But his relationship with Sam is what's most important to Charlie, so much so that he makes a promise to meet him every evening to talk and play catch.
But all that disappears in a flash when, following a road accident, Charlie and Sam are killed; though thanks to the help of a never-give-up paramedic (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas), Charlie is revived.
Charlie is racked with grief, and feels guilt for Sam's death, making it impossible for him to make it through his brother's funeral. Running from the service, Charlie is shocked when, standing in front of him, he finds his deceased brother waiting for him. It seems Charlie's own return from the dead has left him able to communicate with the spirits of others who have passed over.
Over the years Charlie gives up his dreams so that he can stay in his hometown and keep his long held promise to meet Sam every evening. But when an old school friend, Tess (Amanda Crew, Sex Drive), arrives back in town, Charlie finds himself suddenly considering the possibility that there may be more to life, but must break his promise to Sam if he is to finally move on.
Charlie St. Cloud appears to have aspirations of being a 21st century Field of Dreams; so much so that its main characters' share a love of baseball while "Shoeless Joe" himself, Ray Liotta, makes an appearance. Sadly this one doesn't so much knock it out the park as struggle to get to second base. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where Charlie St. Cloud goes wrong; it seems to contain all the elements required to succeed as a tearjerker, and director Burr Steers, adapting Ben Sherwood's novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, appears to know exactly what buttons to press. But try as it might, Charlie St. Cloud struggles to elicit any emotional response from its audience.
Perhaps the first error the film commits is how it deals with Charlie's first encounter with his deceased brother. It should be a major event, but is instead just thrown at the audience with little build up; literally seconds have passed since Sam's death before he reappears, leaving too little time to absorb the impact of the tragic events that opened the film. Throwing such an important plot point at the viewer without granting it the weight it deserves leads to the film's second problem: it is predictable, almost disastrously so. Sam's reappearance, along with another ghostly encounter, will raise suspicions in more savvy viewers far too quickly, and lose the impact of the movie's twist.
Ah yes, the twist. It's carelessness to telegraph your twist so early on, but when that twist has already been used in another movie -- featuring a member of your cast, no less -- it's just plain stupid. To compound matters, said twist clearly wasn't thought through thoroughly as it leads to an unintentionally hilarious (or slightly disturbing, depending on your viewpoint) romantic moment between Charlie and Tess.
Another big problem with the film lies in the character of Sam St. Cloud, Charlie's deceased brother. I respect the decision of all involved not to make Sam's ghost some saintly goody-goody -- he's frequently seen to get jealous and is pretty much the same kid he was before he died. The problem here is that his bouts of jealousy and other flaws make him an oddly unsympathetic character, and the viewer is often left feeling he is holding Charlie back; so much so that his final moments in the film -- complete with flashbacks of his life and a typically stirring score -- just fall flat.
I'm unfamiliar with director Burr Steers, having not seen any of his previous work, but judging by the evidence presented in Charlie St. Cloud, it appears the director lacks much in the way of a signature style. Had Efron not been cast in the lead role, Charlie St. Cloud could quite easily have been some slapped together "movie of the week" on Hallmark. That's not to say Steer's does a terrible job; he's certainly capable of delivering some beautifully framed images. No, the problem I have with the direction relates more to the lack of emotion the film has. Indeed, I'd argue that if you were to remove Efron, Crew and Rolfe Kent's score -- which the film relies on far too much to remind viewers when they should be getting tearful -- Charlie St. Cloud would be a totally soulless experience.
Universal has put together a decent package for Charlie St. Cloud's DVD release. A sharp, colorful 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer, which is packed with detail brings the beautiful scenery (and cast) to life. The 5.1 soundtrack is similarly pleasing. The film, being a gentle drama, doesn't call out for an explosive soundtrack that will push your home setup. Instead we get a perfectly balanced mix that is crisp and clean.
Onto the extras, and a feature commentary with Burr Steers kicks things off. Hardly the most entertaining commentary you'll ever here, the track reveals little in terms of real insight into the shooting or thinking behind the film. A set of deleted scenes, along with a couple of features that focus on Efron, are joined by "The In-Between World," which offers a brief glimpse into the world of mediums and communicating with the dead.
Though the film itself is a rather middling affair, it does contain a major plus point that makes it certainly worthy of a rental for anyone whose interest is peaked by the synopsis. Both the character of Charlie, and Zac Efron's portrayal of him, are excellent. It's obviously cool to diss Efron because, a) the guy is good-looking, and b) he starred in the High School Musical trilogy. But credit where it's due, Efron shows here that he has the chops to carry a movie.
The character of Charlie, unlike his brother, is easy to sympathize with. At the film's start, Charlie, despite his working class roots, has the world at his feet: he's popular, handsome, and has a scholarship to Stanford thanks to his talent as a sailor. Following Sam's death, which he is riddled with guilt over, Charlie gives up his dreams to ensure he doesn't break his promise to his brother. In doing so, Charlie goes from being the envy of his peers to the town weirdo. Working at the local graveyard, Charlie lives a life of solitude, all so he can meet with Sam again at sunset every evening -- just like he promised. When, as is inevitable, Charlie is forced to miss his meeting with Sam, Efron resists going for the histrionics, and instead quietly reveals the pain his character is going through as he finally learns to move on.
The rest of the cast, most notably Ray Liotta and Amanda Crew, provide more than adequate backup for Efron, and are deserving of better material. Crew in particular suffers from a lack of depth to her character, leaving the actress to do all the work in bringing Tess to life.
There's also a small moment, which directly follows the crash, that is surprisingly effective and sees Charlie holding his brother who is himself barely clinging to life. That one scene better captures the brothers' relationship than the entirety of the rest of the film, while also brilliantly introducing the film's supernatural element.
There's clearly a market for movies like Charlie St. Cloud, unfortunately for Efron, it's the same market he's been pandering to for years. It's no fault of the lead, as he's the best thing about this otherwise disappointing -- albeit watchable -- slice of fantasy.
The DVD and the cast are free to go; the film is found guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site