If earnestness counted for greatness, then Charlie St. Cloud would qualify as a completely winning movie. Alas, there are other factors to consider, such as original storytelling, a strong script, perceptive direction, notable filmmaking and interesting performances. It's not that St. Cloud doesn't have some of these elements. It's just that there isn't enough of any of them present to raise this above the bar of so-so melodrama.
This may have looked great on paper, or at least when the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud was at the center of an intense bidding war in '03 between three major studios. It's the tale of a young sailor headed to Stanford whose life is suddenly thrown off course when he and his littler brother are in a car accident, which his sibling doesn't survive. Cut to five years later, and Charlie St. Cloud (a game enough Zac Efron) still hasn't recovered. He's the caretaker of a cemetery, and communicates with the dead people there who are preparing to pass on into the afterlife. Most importantly, he hasn't been able to let go of his brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), instead keeping a long-ago promise to play catch with him every night in the forest before sunset.
That could change when intelligent and attractive Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew) - preparing for a solo sailing trek around the world - comes back to his hometown. Charlie and Tess, who competed against each other in high school, form a bond that threatens his relationship with Sam, and will also develop into its own unique situations. The rest of the supporting players in the story include Charlie's mom (Kim Basinger in an extended cameo), the paramedic Florio (Ray Liotta) who revived Charlie on the night of the accident, and Tess's coach Tink Weatherbee (Donal Logue).
The problem with the movie - which might not have existed in the novel - is that it doesn't settle long enough into any of the story's parts to establish a credible sense of tone. If this is supposed to be a heartfelt drama, we don't spend enough quality scenes with Charlie and his brother to genuinely be moved after the film's initial, jarring set-up. If it's a love story, the credible chemistry between Charlie and Tess, and the actors' sympathetic performances, aren't given much room to breathe before the surprise plot twists kick into gear. And while the cliched, moody pop tunes and perfectly picturesque scenery are both certainly noticeable, they undercut any sort of subtle, sustained or cliche-free filmmaking. The sentimentality is supposed to be heartfelt - but since you've seen this before in countless movies and supernatural weepies, nothing really sticks. It's just earnest, well-meaning and forgettable.
If you're a diehard Zac Efron fan, don't be too worried, because he hasn't done anything here to embarrass himself. Hopefully, though, he can find some meatier projects and roles that require him to do more than just look pretty and play sensitive. He's got that down pat. Now he should move on to something else...but what do you all think? Does Efron have what it takes to be a leading man of longevity and variety? Or can you not imagine him in projects too far removed from the High Scool Musical genre?