The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud

Efron gives a good effort, but the script is treacle.

Though it has most of the hallmarks, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud is not, in fact, an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. While sharing a lot cinematically with just such films – Dear John, A Walk To Remember, The Notebook etc – author Ben Sherwood’s approach to the flogged-dead genre of beautiful-young-people-dramas appears a touch more mature. However, Burr Steers’ film adaptation still can’t shake that cloying slushiness that makes this very nearly decent film another lukewarm display for Zac Efron’s talents (and if his turn in Me and Orson Welles is anything to go by, they are considerable), despite its good intentions.

Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a charming young lad about to head off to Stanford University on a sailing scholarship. However, all of that is thrown into disarray when his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), is killed in a car accident. Picking up five years later, Charlie now works as a caretaker for the local graveyard, having abandoned his dreams. What’s more, he has been interacting with the ghost of his dead brother ever since the accident, playing catch with him every day at the same time. However, when Tess (Amanda Crew), a fellow sailor, enters the picture, she causes Charlie to re-evaluate his life, and in turn Sam worries that with this his memory will soon be forgotten as Charlie moves on with his life.

Like just about every other film of this sort, the people are so nice and considerate that it is at times like watching a creepy, vacuum-sealed Lifetime mid-afternoon TV-film. Prior to the accident, Charlie wants to take a year out so his mother doesn’t have to kill herself working to provide for him, while he also promises his brother that he’ll coach him an hour a day until he has to head off to college. That the film’s appointed antagonists, a group of rowdy, competitive rowers, actually come off more as jocular than overly antagonistic is proof that the finger just isn’t on the pulse; people do not act this mild-mannerly in anything approaching real life.

Surprisingly, though, this is a little more mature and keen to be cheeky than the films it will inevitably be lumped in with. The initial scene in which Sam is killed is visceral, impactful, and oddly unrestrained. Efron’s performance in conveying the loss and heartbreak as he notices his zip-locked brother’s corpse beside him in an ambulance is evocative, and totally believable. There is also a lascivious undercurrent of humour throughout, in several unexpectedly crude sexual jokes, and also a little slither of bad language, which makes the whole thing feel less like a bedtime story and something a little more authentic. One zinger of a line from one of the aforementioned rowing jocks – “there’s not much demand for you as a designated driver” – is a winner, and it grants Efron the chance to rough his squeaky-clean image up a bit, asking if the guy has full dental before summarily punching him out rather delightfully.

The  concept is good enough, but the problem as with so many supernatural films (besides being incredibly derivative), is that it never sets any ground rules for the ghost story and trundles along making them up as it goes. Thus there is never any connect and nothing really feels at stake. The result – that Charlie will have to let his brother go and get on with his life – is inevitable from the outset, and this isn’t really ever conveyed in an emotionally gratifying way, even skimmed over surprisingly fast at the crucial late-day moment.

Not helping things are the misappropriated supporting players. Charlie’s British sidekick character is incredibly annoying and utterly charmless, while Dave Franco (yes, brother of James) fares little better than he did as that moon-faced goof on Scrubs, but at least his screen time here is limited. The bit-parters who raise some interest, meanwhile, are scarcely on screen, for Kim Basinger has a walk-on role as Charlie’s mother, likely shot in a day, while Ray Liotta similarly fleets in an out as the religious paramedic who saved Charlie after the accident, garnishing the film with its expected sense of ludicrous providence.

As a brotherly love story, the film is serviceable, but it falls upon tough times when attempting romance. Though Tess and Charlie’s blossoming relationship is more tolerable than in most of these films – if simply because they are in their mid-20s, where sex is not treated like the be-all and end-all – the trite obviousness with which Charlie’s dilemma is handled is emotionally vapid and uninspired. One admittedly good moment arrives with a surprising twist; it is unexpected even if absurd, and it asks a lot of physical questions about the nature of how the ghosts can interact with the humans, but it will at least perk you up.

It is in the film’s final third, following on from the big revelation, that the film becomes more typical and less interesting, with a fairly routine supernatural thriller rescue narrative that goes the expected way (despite a few chances to shake the formula up). How easily Charlie saves the day is insulting to even the most Efron-loving teen viewer.

There is more emotional resonance here than in so many similar films – perhaps because the strength of a bond between brothers is simply more dramatically potent than two giddily infatuated teens – but the familiar, fairly sanitised treatment holds this back from being a solid showcase for Efron, who acquits himself well enough, but has us frustrated that he isn’t pushing himself further. It is a sweet and good-natured film with a little more daring than similar efforts, but it is still too pat and not engaged enough with its silly concept.


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