Charlie St. Cloud continues the line of movies about death, where ghosts hang around the living, concerned only with earthly matters, stuck in a sort of developmental suspended animation and holding those involved down with them.

Stories like this are intrinsically dishonest in their sincerity. Yes, it’s a metaphorical view of grief, talking to the ghost of a loved one while the world continues on around the hero, but the representations of Charlie St. Cloud are literal in their presentation. The phantoms Charlie (Zac Efron) sees are not the figments of a woe-stricken mind. They are directly and without question the souls of the departed stuck in a terrifying sort of limbo that demands they still worry about their favorite baseball team, play catch at a specific time every day, and try to rip pictures of a cute girl out of a magazine for later viewing.

If one doesn’t follow the ghost’s every wish to the letter (even by missing one play date), it will mean the person has forgotten his loved one’s existence, hence the ghost will dissipate from this mortal coil. It is the ultimate guilt trip, even if, in the end, letting go is best for both parties in the movie’s philosophy.

There’s no downside to Charlie’s otherworldly vision. He can continue to have a bond with his deceased little brother Sam (Charlie Tahan); death is just a minor inconvenience for their relationship. No one has to be the wiser, either. No, he isn’t able to do anything in the land of the living for an hour while he wanders away to a secluded part of the woods to play ball, but this is the movie’s reality. Charlie can and does prove it to someone who matters; it just takes a thematically in-line leap of faith.

Dramatically, these people are at a stalemate. Neither brother grows over the course of their continuing fraternity, as that is impossible. Sam doesn’t age. He doesn’t experience anything outside of what Charlie tells hims. There is one metaphysically potent moment in Sam’s dilemma. Sam admits that he lied in life about kissing a girl. In the midst of the movie’s deceit, this is a rare moment of honesty, for in admitting this missed opportunity is the realization that it cannot be obtained.

Of course, Charlie is stuck in his development, because, as is the point, he is obsessed with maintaining his schedule with Sam. He once sailed competitively, but, as a trio of gossipy female clerks impart upon the audience (along with “He’s cute/creepy/damaged”), he hasn’t gone out on a boat since Sam’s death. His mom (Kim Basinger) left town, while Charlie stayed. In case the point of his fixation with Sam might be missed, the script (by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick, based on a book by Ben Sherwood) has Charlie working as the groundskeeper and living in a cottage at the cemetery where Sam is buried.

Charlie can only achieve the promise of growth, and the script presents that to him in the form of Tess (Amanda Crew), a young woman about to participate in a round-the-world race and who also grieves — albeit with more grounding — over her father. They like each other in that nervous, playfully indecisive way that holds back the inevitable for moments of fake tension (“I’m leaving in a week,” “I don’t care that I’m leaving in a week,” “I want you to tell me everything,” and “On second thought, maybe that dead brother thing’s a bit too much”) and a game of Ghost in the Graveyard.

None of this is evidently enough to truly get the movie’s point across, so we’re also introduced to the paramedic (Ray Liotta) who saved Charlie’s life after the accident that killed Sam, the same paramedic’s St. Jude pendant (the patron saint of lost causes, characters repeat each time the name comes up), and the reveal of a cheap twist that negates the movie’s only possibility of character development.

It all happens for a Reason, orchestrated from the start to do so, and all of it adds up to an all-too pat Point about life in the midst of death. Charlie St. Cloud doesn’t care about any of it except as the means to a hokey and hackneyed end.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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