Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
David Arquette is happy-go-lucky Gordon Smith a dog-fearing postman in the Jersey 'burbs who likes to hang with his buddy Benny (Anthony Anderson) watching sports and eating Cheetos and enjoying a life free of responsibility. Until that is the hot neighbor Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) he's been trying unsuccessfully to date is left without a babysitter and leaves her young son James (Angus T. Jones) in his care. Meanwhile mobster baddie Sonny Talia (Paul Sorvino) puts a hit out on the hardworking FBI canine Agent Eleven who helped bust up his drug deal. Eleven escapes protective custody and ends up hitching a ride in - you guessed it -- Gordon's mail delivery truck. Now Sonny's hit men (and the FBI) are after all three of them.
Arquette who's best known for his AT&T spots "Scream" movie roles and marriage to "Friend" Courteney Cox is good at pulling off the physical comedy required to portray a kid in a grown man's body with his wild hair wacky attitude fart jokes and breakdancing abilities. While most kiddie flicks feature annoyingly precocious tots you'd rather strangle than watch on-screen the pudgy terrifyingly cute Jones comes across just like any regular kid. You wouldn't guess that perfect-looking Leslie Bibb ("Popular") could be so appealing but she's willing to get dirty -- literally - and is able to pull off slapstick schtick with the best of 'em. Michael Clarke Duncan as Agent Eleven's way-too-devoted human partner Murdoch is over-the-top silly but gets plenty of laughs. The dog's cute too.
Director John Whitesell whose only other film credit is 1993's "Calendar Girl " does a good job of hanging this not-so-original tale around a likeable energetic cast that really looks like they're having fun. Thankfully the movie doesn't go overboard with sentimentality -- "Spot" hits the right emotional spot tempering the tear-jerking stuff with juvenile comedy and throwing in some jokes that'll make adults laugh too. Young and old will enjoy this movie although it might be overlong and too confusing for some very little ones to follow and some of the humor gets pretty gross - watching the hapless Arquette roll around in doggy doo for 10 minutes was a bit much.