Though it's hard to feel sorry for Zac Efron (even knowing that he'll get lots of reviews like this one), it's also hard to take the baby-blue-eyed teen idol seriously as he takes baby steps into more adult fare. Even his love interest in "Charlie St. Cloud" is liable to agree that he's the prettier of the two.
In his first serious dramatic test, Efron gets a passing grade (barely), but he still seems synthetic, almost as much so as the sappy magic realism of this adaptation of Ben Sherwood's novel "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud."
There's no other way to say it: Charlie sees dead people. Five years after the onetime golden boy's high-school graduation and the tragic death of his 11-year-old brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), Charlie has abandoned his plans of attending Stanford University on a sailing scholarship, instead taking a job as the caretaker of Seaside Cemetery. This way, he can keep his promise to meet Sam for daily "magic hour" baseball practice sessions. After all, there's no male bonding like "game of catch" bonding (Enrique Chediak's sun-dappled photography obliges the film's dreamy tone).
Naturally, Efron is enthusiastic to show us he can act, so he sheds many a tear from his big doe eyes. Though he's credible in these moments, the conventions of studio-backed cinema conspire against him. Playing a character whose social development has been cripplingly halted, Efron nevertheless sports gym-refined fitness and the just-so uncombed look that can be achieved only by meticulous combing. As fellow sailing buff Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew) says in one of the film's first lines of dialogue, "God, that boy is just too good!"
Though his mom (Kim Basinger) once warned: "You can't put life on hold, Charlie. It doesn't wait for you," Charlie has put his sailing days behind him (should he ever miss a sunset rendezvous, his brother would disappear for good). Still, from afar, Charlie has begun making goo-goo eyes at Tess, who's planning a six-month transglobal sailing voyage. Despite clear obstacles, a date confirms the two are a perfect fit (there's also that clinch in the graveyard ... creeee-py!), which begs a question: What to do about Sam? The Nicholas Sparks-meets-Bruce Joel Rubin plot tangles up one obvious twist, then a less obvious one before the knots can be pulled taut and at last untied in the sailing-themed third act.
Efron shows equally good chemistry with Tahan and Crew, proving again that his best asset is sheer charm. But this latest middle-of-the-road vehicle like the last, "17 Again" also proves that Efron doesn't show the adventurousness of his role model, Leonardo DiCaprio. (Anyone remember "The Basketball Diaries"?) The movie's God talk (most of it coming from ... Ray Liotta?) and blatant expression of theme through platitudes make this romantic melodrama as drippy as the St. Cloud boys' eyes.