What are we supposed to expect from a character named Charlie Countryman played by Shia LaBeouf? Sure, LaBeouf sports a ratty hipster beard and stringy, unwashed dark locks and displays the unfortunate penchant of baring his body at the drop of a hat, which means he’s wandering down a decidedly different and more unsavory path than when we last saw him leading the charge alongside the Autobots in the first Transformers trilogy from Michael Bay. (I should admit that I’ve been waiting for something more from LaBeouf.)
When I first caught wind of him, thanks to The Battle of Shaker Heights, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight filmmaking contest winner from 2003, I thought this young kid might actually break out into a presence of note, and there have been trace elements of real intrigue scattered in his filmography. His quick delivery and immature charms demanded attention in Disturbia, and he was the perfect eager young pup in Lawless, although he was given a bit too much to do in this case, when he really needed to just sit back and let Tom Hardy do the heavy lifting that he’s made for.
Yet, as the titular figure in Charlie Countryman, LaBeouf gets to play the biggest, broadest type — one that is stunningly obvious and suited to his persona, but also undeniably wrong for him for many of the same reasons. Charlie is adrift, a slacker in the now classic sense, when we would no longer even use the term. He’s nothing, but he’s quintessentially and quite stereotypically American. He wears it like a target. He’s a walking bull’s-eye just waiting for the dead-center kill shot.
It doesn’t help his cause that Charlie talks to dead people. His mother (Melissa Leo) gives up the ghost — literally — before her unprepared baby boy can even dash out of the room, but she’s waiting for him in the hallway, sending him on the road to discovery. Get thee to Bucharest, she commands (without the old world tones), and off he goes.
On the flight, he meets a kindly old stranger named Victor (Ion Caramitru) who strikes up a conversation, and then the old man expires, too, but not without charging Charlie with the task of sending a message to his daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). It seems that Mom and Victor are setting Charlie up. They know he’s a lost soul with a romantic streak that’s visible a country mile from all sides.
Gabi sees it, too, and so does Gabi’s estranged husband Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), a bad, bad man full of seductive fire that he simply can’t modulate, much less turn off when it threatens to overpower the proceedings.
Screenwriter Matt Drake (Project X) and director Fredrik Bond (Moby: Play – The DVD) have the good fortune to have attracted Mikkelsen (television’s iconic new Hannibal Lecter) to this project, but their little story can’t contain him. Charlie Countryman (the film) longs to be the quirky pulp cousin of In Bruges, but it comes across like a futile attempt to stuff Mikkelsen’s solar flare of a presence in a tattered old jeans pocket.
Wood’s Gabi has a cheap pair of shades to protect her from the direct light of Mikkelsen. And Til Schweiger, as another bad, bad dude, well, he’s got a nice fancy pair of expensive sunglasses that he wears with his usual impeccable cool, so he’s safe. But poor LaBeouf. His Charlie just gets roasted every time he finds himself in the presence of Mikkelsen. If only Charlie had been set up to learn from Nigel, to study the grace and immense charm of this character, to apprentice at the feet of this great and devious man, then maybe Charlie could have learned the lay of this foreign land. He could have wallowed in the druggy muck (with a weird useless cameo from Rupert Grint) of the Trainspotting vibe and grown up into a more evolved version of a jaded American, one who might have seen and learned something of what it means to really be an American abroad, beyond the cliché.
Instead, Charlie scampers right up to Nigel and yaps and bites at his ankles as if his bark and bite have some undeniable force of their own, rooted in some mythic birthright. But really, everyone knows this is no country for foolish young men, right? Why pretend?
The movie begs us to go along for the ride, to act as if this popped myth is gospel truth, even when we know it’s not. Once upon a time, both pulp and noir trafficked in dark cynicism. Oh, how I miss those days. Back then, good sense would have kept a performer like LaBeouf in check, molding and fashioning him into something realistic, and not just an easily manipulated action boy-toy. (Opens Friday) (R)
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