Like a lot of Hollywood stars, Shia LaBeouf has two careers: the one in big-budget blockbusters (the Transformers movies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and the one in gritty indies (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Lawless). And like a lot of his peers, the latter career is the more interesting one. “Interesting” isn’t always the same as “good,” however—a point that’s driven home by his latest, Charlie Countryman. In this European romantic thriller, we see LaBeouf go for an edgier vibe than he exhibits when hanging out with Optimus Prime. He gives his all to material that’s too much of a mess to achieve its bold, sweeping aspirations.
The feature directorial debut of Fredrik Bond, Charlie Countryman stars LaBeouf as the title character, a young man living in Chicago whose mother (Melissa Leo) is about to be taken off life support. Once she dies, though, she appears to the grieving Charlie in a vision, suggesting he go off to Bucharest for a little adventure. Without anything really keeping him in Chicago, he decides to follow his mom’s advice.
But once Charlie gets to the Romanian city, he gets mixed up with Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), a local musician he first meets because her father died while sitting next to him on the plane to Bucharest. Charlie is immediately smitten with this beautiful woman, but she’s married to an intimidating thug named Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), who doesn’t take kindly to Gabi’s new friend.
Working from a script by Matt Drake, who co-wrote last year’s teen party romp Project X, Bond seems at times to be making an exaggerated riff on every young American’s fantasy of flying to Europe and getting sucked into a world of dangerous criminals and exotically gorgeous women. Charlie Countryman is most appealing when it leans into that fantasy. Bond, who was born in Sweden but spent many years in London, gives the locales a slick, trashy vividness, goosed along by a score from Christophe Beck and DeadMono, as well as by pulsating songs from the likes of Moby, M83 and the xx. Although Charlie Countryman starts off on a poignant note—Charlie’s loss of his mother and his desire to find himself—the movie quickly shifts to a more euphoric, searching tone, placing Charlie’s coming-of-age against car crashes, sex clubs and chase scenes.
There’s fun to be had amidst Bond’s cheeky playland absurdity, and in limited doses it’s a treat to see LaBeouf return to the anxious-kid persona that was so winning back when he was just an upstart in movies like Disturbia. (He can hem and haw with self-deprecating charm that’s not that far removed from a young Woody Allen.) Now 27, LaBeouf still doesn’t have the necessary gravitas to play a deeply troubled soul, so instead he makes Charlie a likable, bruised dreamer—a Charlie Brown for the “ugly American” set.
But LaBeouf’s best efforts and some seedy Eastern European atmosphere can only take Charlie Countryman so far. Eventually, we need a story, and it’s here that the film falters badly. Charlie and Gabi’s burgeoning attraction draws the ire of Nigel, who’s mixed up with some dastardly bastards, including a frightening club owner (Til Schweiger). But those plot developments don’t lead anywhere interesting. (Bond does show a knack for slow-mo action, but that’s hardly a rare commodity in contemporary filmmaking.) And although Charlie insists that his meeting Gabi is some sort of cosmic fate, it’s hard to share his belief when she doesn’t have much of a character to play. (To compensate for being a cipher, she’s given tons of eye makeup.)
What results is a movie that’s a muddle of vibrant ideas and derivative execution. Aiming for a Danny Boyle-like electricity, Charlie Countryman occasionally captures the unbridled jubilation of being young and in love in a foreign city, the future stretching out with limitless possibilities. But more often, underwritten characters and unimaginative storytelling drag the film back to earth. LaBeouf stretches himself in Charlie Countryman, but for little reward. No doubt he chooses projects like this to prove he’s more than just the kid from Transformers. But when they are not appreciably better than your typical tentpole, it’s hard to salute his adventurousness.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Fredrik Bond
Writer: Matt Drake
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Til Schweiger, Rupert Grint, James Buckley, Vincent D’Onofrio, Melissa Leo
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013