A fresh-faced zombie movie with an uplifting moral, Charlie St. Cloud purports to grapple with matters of life and death. But this ode to "moving on" from grief packs so little genuine emotion that it will touch only the most susceptible of viewers.
As the title character, Disney pinup Zac Efron doesn't have enough substance to be a cloud; he's more like a barely perceptible Pacific Northwest drizzle, although he'll presumably become more noticeable to the film's target audience each time he takes off his shirt.
Adapted from Ben Sherwood's 2005 novel, the movie begins with the camera skimming excitedly across Puget Sound. Charlie, a heck of a sailboat racer even though he's not part of the upscale local in crowd, is about to win another regatta. Along for the ride is his little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). The two are nearly inseparable since Dad abandoned them; Mom (a Kim Basinger cameo) is usually working double shifts.
Sam fears that Charlie will soon abandon him for college. Instead, the brothers are divided by a drunk driver, who knocks their car into the path of a truck. Both boys die, but a devoutly religious paramedic (Ray Liotta) manages to zap Charlie back to this mortal coil.
Charlie's reaction to what the paramedic calls "a complete miracle"? "I can't leave him," he protests, reaching for his inert brother.
Five years later, it turns out that the St. Cloud boys haven't been separated at all. Charlie has rejected Stanford and sailing to become the caretaker at the oh-so-pleasant cemetery where Sam is buried. And every evening at dusk, Charlie plays catch with his baseball-loving sibling's ghost.
Yup, Charlie can see dead people. More than see them, in fact. After years of little human contact -- except with a loudmouth co-worker who sports an incongruous Cockney accent -- Charlie becomes intimate with Tess (Amanda Crew), a pretty sailor who's too perfect to be anything but an apparition.
But maybe Tess isn't exactly dead. Perhaps Charlie can save her, if only he can go deep enough into the dream. (Oh, sorry -- that's Inception.) Charlie St. Cloud isn't nearly as complicated as that movie, but both flicks do share slightly creepy dream date-rape scenarios.
Oddly, Charlie St. Cloud also recalls a somewhat less somber movie, Caddyshack. The graveyard is bedeviled not by ghouls but by geese, so Charlie -- like Bill Murray's groundskeeper before him -- is forever attempting new gambits to drive off unwanted animals. Understandably, the birds are not frightened by the occasional phantasms, all of them roughly as spooky as Casper.
The movie, supervised by 17 Again director Burr Steers, includes a few high-school musical numbers. In an especially pointless one, Charlie and his dead brother frolic in the rain to The Ramones' "California Sun."
Unlike The Lovely Bones, this film doesn't attempt to show the afterlife as experienced by those who die too young. But then, who needs Heaven when you live in a picturesque sailing village in Microsoftland? Charlie St. Cloud may be a tale of loss, but its characters seem to have everything they could possibly want.