Efron plays a personality-challenged anti-hero in forgettable 'Charlie St. Cloud'

Photo: Universal. Charlie Tahan, left, plays Sam and Zac Efron plays his brother Charlie in the romantic drama "Charlie St. Cloud."

Photo: Universal. Charlie Tahan, left, plays Sam and Zac Efron plays his brother Charlie in the romantic drama "Charlie St. Cloud."

Charlie St. Cloud (PG-13)

1 1/5 stars out of 4

This is what happens when a performer becomes defined by a single, high-profile role -- audiences find it difficult to see them in any other light. For Zac Efron -- now almost 25 years old -- shaking the teen-idol image that followed in the wake of the three enormously popular "High School Musical" flicks has proven to be highly problematic and presents a professional hurdle he might never be able to clear.

In "17 Again," he starred as a high-school heartthrob which was essentially a recycled "HSM." In the superb art-film "Me and Orson Welles," he played a high-school thespian upstaged by his entire supporting cast. In "Charlie St. Cloud," Efron's title character starts out in 2005 as a recent high school graduate but it only lasts for about 10 minutes. For the rest of the movie (set in 2010), he plays a downbeat and sullen graveyard caretaker riddled with misplaced guilt. Some might consider this career move an example of extreme artistic overcompensation.

Imagine a Nicholas Sparks adaptation cross-pollinated with "The Sixth Sense" by way of a made-for-TV Hallmark weeper and you'll get the thrust of "Charlie St. Cloud." After almost dying in a car crash that wasn't his fault yet claimed the life of his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), Charlie defers his Stanford scholarship, takes the creepy caretaker job and essentially throws in the towel on life.

Charlie is anchored in his New England home because of a posthumous promise he made to his brother on the day Sam was buried. Every day at sunset, the two meet in the woods and toss around a baseball. No matter what he's doing or who he's with, Charlie drops everything and races to the forest to chew the fat and play catch with a ghost. Everyone in town thinks he's crazy and an early scene featuring Charlie and an Iraq War veteran friend strongly supports their position.

Because it's been firmly established that Sam is indeed dead and Charlie is very much alive, any measure of tension or mystery for this main plot -- such as the one in "The Sixth Sense" -- is absent and acts mostly as a laborious time killer.

Things start looking up somewhat at the film's midway point with the full-time presence of Tess (Amanda Crew), a girl who has had a crush on Charlie forever and shares his passion for sailing. The glint returns to Charlie's eye, he starts smiling, considers missing meetings with Sam and -- to the giddy delight of every swooning Efron fan -- he finally removes his shirt.

This minor positive upswing is short-lived once the third acts kicks in when it is revealed that not only can Charlie converse with the dead, he's also clairvoyant and can "read" shooting stars. It is also suggested that the mere touch of Charlie's chest can prevent death. However inane and far-fetched this may be, there's probably more than a few teen girls who would enthusiastically volunteer to test this theory.

With a maudlin tone not all that different from the Nicholas Sparks-Miley Cyrus downer "The Last Song" from earlier this year, director Burr Steers' adaptation of the similarly titled Ben Sherwood novel takes a bouncy, fresh-faced brand name and turns them into a morose, personality-challenged anti-hero.

Considering "The Last Song" was the poorest-performing movie of Cyrus' young career and Efron (not including the ensemble "HSM" franchise) has yet to make any kind of tangible dent at the box-office, expect the audience-repelling "Charlie St. Cloud" to dissipate like morning cumulus. (Universal)