As much as Charlie St. Cloud dresses up its formula with ghosts and pretty footage of boats on water, that formula remains stubbornly visible.
"I witnessed a miracle," asserts Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta). "You were a complete flat-line, and then...!" A former paramedic now sidelined by his own terminal cancer, Florio means to encourage that onetime flat-line, Charlie (Zac Efron). "You must think about why," he exhorts. The kid looks blank. "Why did you get a second chance?"
Florio hasn't seen Charlie for five years, since that night -- a few minutes into Charlie St. Cloud -- when he arrived at the scene of the car crash where Charlie was injured and his little brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) was killed, and witnessed the miracle he went on to attribute to St. Jude. And so Florio doesn't know, like you do, that Charlie doesn't see his survival as much of a miracle. In fact, he feels burdened and resentful about it, so guilty about Sam that he's been unable to move past that night. Once a brilliant high school sailor with a scholarship to Stanford, now he's just a forlorn soul literally working in the local graveyard.
That, and, hanging out every evening with the ghost of his dead brother.
Charlie hasn't thought it through, but when Florio suggests there's a reason he's alive, you're inclined to think this is it, that he's on earth to talk to dead people. You're inclined to think this because you see him with Sam each late afternoon, having an idyllic catch as golden light beams down through tall trees, and also chatting in the graveyard with a friend who went to Iraq. When the camera cuts to someone else's view of the gravestone, Charlie gesturing and yapping to no one, well, you get that everyone in town is pretty much steering clear of him, either appreciating his grief and feeling helpless about it, or remembering The Sixth Sense and feeling worried about it.
Florio feels differently. Unfortunately, he's short on time and encumbered by a thick coating of pasty-cadaverous makeup. This seriously reduces the potential enlivening effect of Liotta in the resolutely maudlin Charlie St. Cloud. Relegated here to delivering the big message to Charlie (the reason for his second chance, you know), Florio leans over the diner table and urges him, "You should be out in the world, living your life. Don't squander this gift you've been given."
But Charlie's kind of into squandering, imagining that he's keeping a promise to Sam to never leave him. The film shows him again and again, resisting invitations to go out with his affable cemetery coworker, Alistair (Augustus Prew) or bent over his desk late at night, designing the perfect sailboat that he'll never sail. Mostly, though, he's with Sam in the woods, acting out a particularly creepy relationship. While it's a cliché that movie ghosts have wisdom, or at least access to information beyond that known to their human companions, this one is forever stuck in Little League, alternately cute and pouty, sometimes imagining his brother should get on with his life, but mostly insisting that Charlie stay with him -- same time every day. When he misses by just a few moments, the ghost turns cranky and demanding: "I could feel you forgetting me, I was starting to disappear!"
Of course, Charlie spins into guilt and anxiety all over again. Or, put another way, he's still not ready to "be out in the world." Which is exactly why he runs into Tess (Amanda Crew), a beautiful fellow sailor who's about to embark on a round-the-world solo excursion. She, like, Charlie, doesn’t want to be distracted by some movie-style romance, which is exactly why they're both distracted. Or, as she explains it to her coach (Donal Loague), "He flummoxed me!"
As much as Charlie St. Cloud dresses up its formula with ghosts and pretty footage of boats on water, that formula remains stubbornly visible. And as much as formula is the usual mode for young stars in search of controlled exposure and industry credibility, it also tends to be distracting in itself.
You can imagine the calculating that turned Ben Sherwood's sentimental novel into a Zac Efron vehicle. It's got the requisite moral struggles, some action and romance, as well scenic views and tear-jerking moments. Which brings us back to Florio. His precious few minutes on screen barely remind you that Liotta -- pretty much the anti-Zac Efron -- once made career choices (Something Wild, Goodfellas) that were not only unformulaic, but also terrific, out in a world utterly disconnected from the one on display here.