Monday, August 9, 2010

Rants on Charlie St. Cloud

A film about a young man who loses his brother in a car accident and spends the next few years wallowing alone in self-pity, grief and guilt trying to reconcile what happened may not be the general public's cup of tea, but to me, a fellow with an intense attraction to emotionally damaged boys and who has seen Ordinary People more times than any human ever should, this sounds like a "can't miss." So why then does Charlie St. Cloud (Burr Steers, 2010) feel so pedestrian and ordinary when the plot and the lead actor--heartthrob Zac Efron in his first true dramatic role--suggest that something potentially interesting could have been made out of this film? I'm laying blame with Steers himself who, after getting lucky with an extraordinary cast in the otherwise inept 17 Again, has once again proven incapable of challenging his actors and the audience alike beyond the typical genre fare. Missed opportunities to push both his star and the film to new, potentially uncomfortable places are abundant and increasingly hard to ignore.

Perhaps the most glaringly missed opportunity is the relationship between Charlie (Efron) and his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan, not as annoying as you'd expect), which is so rushed in order to get to the tragedy sooner you never get a complete feel for how their relationship works. There are hints that the relationship between them has, because of their age gap, has become more like a father and son rather than one between brothers. In fact, Charlie has more or less assumed the paternal role in the family since he not only doles out advice and support to Sam in lieu of their absent father but he also takes it upon himself to be an emotional crutch for their hardworking mother (Kim Basinger). When the trio goes to Charlie's high school graduation, not only is Charlie the one driving the car, the typical fatherly responsibility, but he also comforts his mother when she is self-conscious about her dress when she sees all the rich bitch mothers in their designer clothes. But before Steers can expand on this in any detail, the film is ready to move on to the tragedy with a dismaying swiftness. Whatever tears the film jerks, it doesn't earn at all. We don't get to know these characters well enough to even begin to feel for their loss at that moment.

After a car accident kills Sam, Charlie sees the ghost of his dead brother and decides to give up a sailing scholarship at Stanford to stay at home and keep a promise he made with him to help him practice baseball. When the film picks up after the funeral, Charlie has been doing this for five years already. Their first couple scenes together show them having a good time in the mud and flying a toy plane over the river, but quickly you get the sense that their relationship isn't all hunky dory. There are a couple of moments where, instead of fulfilling something missing in Charlie's life, Sam's ghost has become more of a nagging inconvenience, an obligation he must fulfill so his brother won't resent him. But does Charlie actually feel this way? He has every right to since he has more or less given up his entire life to spend time with Sam. But just as soon as Charlie St. Cloud raises this potentially interesting issue, it quickly drops it in favor of gooey sentimentality which has been done better in countless other movies. Unfortunately, as the film moves forward, this becomes the status quo: missing potentially unique ideas and emotions in favor of what has already been done before.

An even better example of this is the role of the ghosts in Charlie St. Cloud. Besides Sam, Charlie sees the ghost of two other characters, one being a high school friend who died in Iraq (Dave Franco) and the other, well, is a potential spoiler so I shall not reveal. The point it, however, Charlie is surrounded by ghosts of all sorts but we have no idea where they come from. Are they supernatural apparitions á la The Ghost Whisperer? Are they figments of Charlie's subconscious? If they are all in Charlie's mind, are they a way to combat his self-imposed loneliness/isolation or are they connected to his guilt for "killing" his brother? Who knows; the movie sure as hell doesn't, nor does it really care to answer these questions for that would make the audience think and we wouldn't want that. Cheap tears are all Charlie St. Cloud is aiming for and it can not even deliver on that front.

As he did with 17 Again, Burr Steers places a lot of the burden of Charlie St. Cloud on the shoulders of star Zac Efron with decidedly mixed results this go-around. This isn't to say that Efron is the problem; if anything, he's the only reason this film works in any of the limited ways it does. The problem is that Efron is trying to push himself and the material in unchartered territories but is ultimately stifled by Steers' attempt at middlebrow emotionality. There are brief flashes of imagination on Efron's part, such as his line about being a werewolf to try and break the ice with a girl he's been set up with or his line reading of "Are you serious?!" to The Girl of the movie when they are discussing boat propellers. These moments suggest Efron's awkwardness around people now that he doesn't interact with them on a regular basis and are instrumental in moving the character beyond one-dimensional sad and lonely archetypes. But Steers isn't interested in this and, instead, aims to express Charlie's inner torment by having him stare off into the distance as much as possible. A lot of critics hated this approach, and while it's obviously the least appropriate or interesting way to go about it, I think Efron does a fine job handling this. Granted this may be because I think Efron has the most beautiful face on the planet and could stare at it for hours, but I believe he and the camera have a special, intimate relationship. In my High School Musical 3: Senior Year review, I waxed on about him capturing the camera's attention in the same way Garbo, Dietrich and Monroe all did in their hey-day. Especially after Charlie St. Cloud, I now realize that I may have went overboard in that analysis, but I do believe that Efron has the makings of a true movie star. The way I would describe his talent now, though, is to compare him to Jean-Pierre Léaud in the opening scene of Masculin féminin. JPL spends the first five or so minutes observing the people coming in and out of the restaurant he's in and writing in his notebook, not once uttering a word. He's utterly compelling not doing anything and this is where I see Efron in the future. He has the talent and the ability, he just needs to find a director willing to take a chance. D+


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