Review: Charlie Countryman
PLOT: An aimless American travels on an impulse to Bucharest, Romania, and strikes up a romance with a young woman whose ex-boyfriend happens to be a dangerous gangster.
REVIEW: CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN would like to fancy itself this generation's TRUE ROMANCE: a quirky, violent, self-consciously stylish ode to love-at-first-sight. It features a hero who begins his journey as an aimless boy but undergoes a transformation into courageous badass thanks to the affections of a strange woman, while gangsters lurk around the edges, threatening to foil the couple's destiny. Of course, TRUE ROMANCE didn't invent the tale; the story of an everyman who claims the heart of a tainted beauty has been told many times before, but it's clear that the Tony Scott film is a major inspiration for scribe Matt Drake and director Fredrik Bond. Sadly, CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN doesn't have the genuine electric energy of TRUE ROMANCE, nor does the screenplay possess a third of Quentin Tarantino's wit or storytelling savvy. What it does have, however, is Shia LaBeouf giving a very good performance.
Don't shoot the messenger. I'm no fan of LaBeouf's either, have never found him to a be a very likable or engaging screen presence. But you'll probably notice the actor has recently been challenging himself with unorthodox roles meant to subvert the "Next Tom Hanks" image pushed upon him, and that's an admirable task if you ask me. In CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN, LaBeouf opens himself up considerably in a role that asks him to show vulnerability, foolishness, heartbreak and good humor. I never really thought the actor would be capable of these things; usually there's an arrogance simmering perceptively under the surface of his characters, making it uneasy to root for him. His Charlie is a wounded but spirited young man with a lot on his mind but nothing much to lose, and LaBeouf sells his enthusiastic impetuousness.
The movie opens with Charlie (LaBeouf) hanging over a roiling waterfall, bloodied and semi-unconscious. Things aren't looking up. We then quickly flashback to weeks earlier, and Charlie isn't in a much better place. He's on hand to watch his mother (Melissa Leo) pass away in the hospital, evidently has a drinking problem, and no clear goals or dreams. While sulking outside of his mother's room, he encounters her ghost (yes, her ghost), who tells him to go to Bucharest, Romania. With nothing else going on, Charlie complies, booking a flight to the touristy city with no goal other than just to get there. On the plane he meets a kindly old Romanian named Victor (Ion Caramitru) who chats him affably before croaking in his sleep. Not unlike dear old mom, Victor gives Charlie some advice after he's dead, requesting that the American seek out his daughter.
Victor's daughter is Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), a brooding musician. Charlie is instantly smitten, but any possible romance between the two is complicated by the fact that her ex-boyfriend is Nigel (played by the great Mads Mikkelsen), a volatile gangster who isn't ready to give her up. Charlie is, rightfully, intimidated by Nigel, who is clearly a psychopath, but his infatuation with Gabi is too strong to deny, kickstarting a hectic handful of nights that see Charlie immersing himself into the culture of the city while yearning for Gabi and avoiding brutish thugs.
There are plenty of plot coincidences and conveniences in Matt Drake's script that enable Charlie and Gabi - and Charlie and Nigel - to keep bumping into one another, even in a city that is depicted as shadowy and wild by director Bond. A subplot involving a rival gangster named Darko (Til Schweiger) and an incriminating VHS tape is mostly there to supplement the plot; otherwise it would be a lot of Charlie mooning over Gabi or Charlie running through the streets of Bucharest looking for Gabi. The movie intensely wants us to be swept up in their relationship, but it's unfortunate we don't necessarily buy the romance. LaBeouf does his part; as mentioned before, he's every bit the lovestruck dope, but Wood's performance isn't quite up to par. She works hard on her Romanian accent, this is certain, but we're never sold on Charlie's reckless devotion to her.
There's a lively soundtrack featuring artists like Moby and M83 to lend the proceedings an aural vibrancy and sense of import, but combined with Bond's glossy visuals, the effect can often be akin to an extended music video. (One prolonged sequence where Charlie takes Ecstasy with a couple of new friends - played by Rupert Grint and James Buckley - absolutely resembles a glorified video for new trance beat.) For a younger generation unfamiliar with a film like TRUE ROMANCE - or any number of films with a similar spirit and logline - CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN may provide some exuberant entertainment and a rousing portrayal of young passion, but for the rest of us, it's a familiar tune with nothing new to add. Save, of course, for the revelation that perhaps there's more than meets the eye to LaBeouf.