Zac Efron's ghost tale is a bust
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures, Charlie Tahan stars as Sam St. Cloud and Zac Efron stars as Charlie St. Cloud in Universal Pictures' "Charlie St. Cloud."

Rated: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. 1.5 stars.

Who doesn't love a good head-scratching ghost story? Or a romantic or family-friendly one? Why not try for the triumvirate combining all three? And for an added incentive, why not toss in a hunky heartthrob who's just starting to test his dramatic muscle? Guaranteed home run at the box office, right?

Probably. "Charlie St. Cloud" is the stuff that Nicholas Sparks fans will die for. For the rest of us, it's as though Disney and Lifetime formed a devilish alliance to create something to turn our stomachs and turn our brains into pudding.

The film, based on a novel by Ben Sherwood, held the promise of a magical adaptation like "Bridge to Terabithia." This one takes place in a similarly forested locale, overlooking Puget Sound. As Zac Efron's Charlie squints off into the horizon, his little brother and boating buddy, Sam (Charlie Tahan), asks where all those seafaring vessels are going. "Everywhere," his dreamboat sibling replies, crystalline eyes afire.

And that's where this movie goes, too: everywhere. As in, dissonant juggling of the treacly, the morbid and the head-slapping ridiculous.

Charlie, a gifted sailor and Stanford-bound high school grad, ends up in a downward spiral the day Sam is killed in a car accident. Survivor's remorse is a gorilla upon the older brother's back, so he gives up his collegiate dreams and his love of the water to become a cemetery handyman. He lives alone in a shack on the premises, to be close to Sam's grave — and Sam himself, apparently. In a neu-"Field of Dreams" way, the boys meet every day at sunset in the woods to play catch and talk about life.

But this placid melancholy is soon interrupted by Tess (Amanda Crew), a former schoolmate of Charlie's who's preparing to set sail on a solo voyage around the world. Her wanderlust and independence is a threat to Sam's enduring visage. He wines, "I can feel myself disappearing." In response, Efron broods. And then broods some more.

This was the venue that was intended to catapult the "High School Musical" idol into the big leagues. Like his Disney chum Pinocchio, Efron here does the "I'm a real actor!" song and dance, but his performance is so wooden and wobbly. Charlie is a messed-up guy who gets his kicks hanging out with the dead; Efron comes off as way too Banana Republic for such a gothic role. True, you can't get more WASPy than a plot where boating is prominent and the "poor" St. Cloud family — who live right onshore — is headed by an overworked nurse (an unappreciated Kim Basinger). But were all the gratuitous pectoral shots of our endowed hero really necessary? (Survey of teen girls says yes, surely.)

Sadly, some talented folk slum it in "St. Cloud." Donal Logue plays Tess' coach, Tink. He does surly well, but not much else. Ray Liotta appears as a spiritual paramedic who saved Charlie from the wreck, but his portrayal is held together by bubblegum and saltwater taffy. He insists to Charlie time and again that he was given a second chance for a reason; therefore, he should be more open to risks. Sounds like the same thing movie executives probably told Efron when transitioning from tween fare to this tripe.

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