by Coop Cooper
Quirky self-discovery comedies are a difficult to pull off. They go like this: A guy or girl suffers a tragedy/existential crisis and is compelled to go on a trip where they will learn their true purpose in life and meet their destiny. Along the way they meet wise men and gurus who have it all figured out and who give the main character a gentle nudge in the right direction. They also meet a soulmate who has the potential to change their life, but they must make the right choices. Usually, a villain or massive obstacle gives the hero the final push they need to triumph in the end or fail and learn a harsh lesson about life. The newly released indie film “Charlie Countryman” follows this formula to the letter, but it doesn’t come very close to mastering it.
Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) is facing an existential crisis. Since his mother (Melissa Leo) died, he is seeing – or hallucinating – that the recently dead speak to him and give him life advice. In the case of his mother, she advises him to get over his grief by running off to Bucharest. On the way, he makes fast friends with his seatmate, Victor (Ion Caramitru), leading to a series of seemingly random coincidences that results in Charlie falling in love with Victor’s cello-playing daughter Gabi (a nearly unrecognizable Evan Rachel Wood). Unfortunately, Gabi is involved with the seedy gangster Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen) who doesn’t take kindly to Charlie’s presence. During his stay, Charlie runs across many eccentric and menacing characters who always impart some sort of guru-like philosophy on Charlie. In the end, it will be Charlie’s foolhardy actions that will define the remainder of his life.
The biggest sin this type of film can commit is to take itself too seriously. This one often lapses into a somber melodrama when it should have stayed light and comedic. It shares this similarity with another self-discovery film, the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film “Joe Versus the Volcano” which is known for being one of the most unfunny, big-budgeted comedic bombs of all time. The two films share many of the same flaws and pale in comparison to ones that got it right like “Roadside Prophets” (1992) and “Elizabethtown” (2005). Those films never go too dark and only get sappy – with a hint of whimsy – toward the end. “Charlie Countryman” never fully nails down a tone and isn’t as fun as these better films. It pretenses were telegraphed by its original title, “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman”, which might have clued audiences in that it might be trying too hard to be indie, clever and melodramatic.
Shia LaBeouf has been trying to stretch his acting muscles and while I encourage that, he seems to over-act through performances when he should practice more restraint. There may be a great actor in LaBeouf, but he still needs to grow up a bit and this film illustrates that immaturity. Evan Rachel Wood has the mature skill that LaBeouf does not. She disappears into the role so deeply that, not only did I not recognize her at first, but I frequently forgot who she was throughout the film. If she can keep her public life in check, she will win an Oscar one day. Mads Mikkelsen may be one of the most skilled foreign actor working in English-speaking films today but he takes strange roles. Once again he was excellent but it didn’t feel like a role he should’ve taken. He can do better. One actor in the film who should do better is Rupert Grint who played Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” adaptations. In the least dignified role of his career, Grint participates in one humiliating scene after another in which he is the butt of every crude joke. If these are the best roles he is getting offered, his career will soon end.
Even the worst self-discovery movies can gain a cult following. “Joe Versus the Volcano” somehow did and “Charlie Countryman” will probably do the same. It speaks to a generation, a mood, a style that will resonate with someone, especially if they have an affinity for the actors involved. It does have some nice moments, even a few funny and poignant ones but then again, so did “Joe Versus”. Overall it takes itself too seriously, goes dark when it doesn’t fit and revels in the obnoxious and absurd for no good reason. Thankfully it’s watchable and the performances are admirable, but Charlie’s nonsensical choices sink the film. Nice try though.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars