A perfect snoozer in every way that 17 Again had been a pleasant surprise, the reunion of star Zac Efron with director Burr Steers for Charlie St. Cloud proves ineffective at elevating the maudlin material at hand into something more moving.
On the night of his high school graduation, Charlie (Efron) has been tasked with keeping tabs on his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), while Mom (Kim Basinger) takes up an extra shift at work. As Charlie tries to sneak off for that great big kegger at the point, Sam catches him in the act and insists on at least getting a ride to a friend's house along the way. Neither one plans on a drunk driver rear-ending their car and forcing it into oncoming traffic, though, and before you know it, Sam is dead and Charlie is being resuscitated in the back on an ambulance.
Cut to five years later, and Charlie's passed up that sailing scholarship to Stanford in favor of staying behind in his Pacific Northwest hamlet and serving as caretaker at the local cemetery. He tolerates the pooping geese there and the passing glances in town because Charlie can now see the dead, and he holds true to his promise to meet Sam in the woods every day at sunset for a bit of baseball and with a lot of guilt. (Don't ask me how the ball gets thrown back, occasionally right at Charlie's groin -- we just roll with the idea that Sam's spirit has a literal, if fleeting presence in the twilight hour. The rules of our lead's interactions with those in the ghostly realm will only grow murkier from here.)
Enter Tess (Amanda Crew), a former classmate and one-time competitor of Charlie's. She's drawing attention for her intent to take up in a six-month solo race around the world, and it'd be ill-advised for her to wonder just now whatever happened to that St. Cloud boy. Will Charlie eventually be torn between the promise of a life with her and his promise to spend time with Sam? Does the timely appearance of the medic (Ray Liotta) who revived Charlie that fateful night ensure that our hero might finally consider why God gave him a big, fat second chance that night? Have you ever flipped really fast between one channel showing "Dawson's Creek" re-runs and another showing "Ghost Whisperer"? If so, and even if you haven't, you pretty much get the idea.
Efron was a scrappy performer in the High School Musical films, and he even played a scrappy performer in Me and Orson Welles, but it was only really in the otherwise formulaic fantasy 17 Again that I felt he was blending some of that star-making charm with a regret and just general range beyond his years. Grief isn't clean-cut, though, which is all Efron is here. If Steers was having him shoot for understated, then he settled for something closer to inert; he's a blanker slate than ever before whose hair seems much more disheveled than his heart.
And the camera, like Charlie, doesn't dwell on the burn marks on his chest from the defibrillator charge that saved his life, which is indicative of the movie's general indifference to settling on the proper mood. After five years of adjustment, Charlie's far too used to chatting up friends who are coming back home in a coffin, far too keen on being the mysterious guy with a tragic past to all the local girls. In adapting Ben Sherwood's novel, screenwriters Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick even go so far as to saddle our protagonist with a gin-swilling horndog best friend (Augustus Prew). That character and the other intrusions of humor clash with the inherent story potential of a brooding fellow who's more than content to let life pass him by as he spends his youth attending to gravestones and ghosts. I'm not saying that we should've received the full-on Tim Burton treatment here, but by the very casting of Efron, all the interesting edges to the material seem to have been sanded away in favor of supernatural contrivance and soapy lather.
The heavy-handed lamentations of any adult in sight (Basinger, Liotta and Donal Logue appear for maybe two scenes a piece) give way to a tidy third-act rescue mission and significant shirtlessness on Efron's part, and Hallmark-worthy sermons about living and loving life on the movie's part. Given his predicament, you'd think that Charlie St. Cloud deserved something a bit messier, a bit moodier, a bit less conventional, but as it stands now, he's just about the nicest freak in town.