‘Charlie Countryman’: What a trip

November 15, 2013

charlie countryman

Fredrik Bond’s “Charlie Countryman” is an intriguing directorial debut: a blend of the madcap and the maniacal, a movie that mixes tones in ways that shouldn’t work but do.

In that sense, it calls to mind a couple of other films: Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.” What feels initially like a comedy suddenly takes a serious turn and becomes something else: a thriller with a violent streak set in an exotic locale.

Shia LaBeouf plays the title character: a lost young Chicagoan sent reeling by the death of his mother. He sits on the floor slumped against a wall in the hallway outside her hospital room (where she’s just been taken off a ventilator that’s been keeping her alive). She suddenly appears to him (in the form of Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) and, when Charlie asks for a direction for his life, she tells him to go to Bucharest. So he hops a plane for Romania.

He winds up sitting next to a Romanian tourist, Victor (Ion Caramitru), who shows him a silly hat he’s taking back to his daughter in Bucharest. Charlie dozes off – and when he wakes up, Victor is slumped over dead. But, after Victor is covered with a blanket by a stewardess, he speaks to Charlie, beckoning him under the blanket and asking him to take a message to his daughter.

So, OK: Here, in the space of 10 minutes, you’ve got a guy dealing with death – even as he has semi-comic/semi-horrifying conversations with the dead. Where can a movie go from there? Bond finds plenty of places.

The daughter is a cellist named Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), who can’t quite figure out what Charlie’s talking about but winds up drawing him into her surprisingly eventful (for a cellist in the orchestra of the Bucharest opera) life. Before he knows it, he’s involved with Gabi’s murderous ex-husband Nigel (the insinuating Mads Mikkelsen), as well as a pair of British tourists (Rupert Grint and James Buckley), who have a taste for recreational drugs and strippers.

Matt Drake’s script is about one young man finding a direction for his life, having drifted through what he’s had of it so far. Before long, his main direction seems to be running from life-threatening gangsters, as well as trying to convince Gabi that they just may have a future together.

The tones occasionally jangle. While Bond has a way with action (there’s a top-notch foot-chase that goes from rooftops to subway and beyond), he can’t quite balance the comedy and romance with the more graphic moments of violence. Still, he obviously has a way with actors, because his cast gives him a strong set of performances.

LaBeouf leads the way in the title role. He’s got a great deadpan for the comic moments and superb timing with throwaway lines. He’s utterly believable as a confused and lovesick young man, who finds his courage and his resolve in trying to save this mysterious young woman.

Wood is an attractive object of desire. She is the voice of pragmatism throughout, a woman who knows just what Charlie is letting himself in for, but who is enough of a romantic to be infected by Charlie’s spirit.

Mikkelsen is an outstanding villain, particularly when his alternately whimsical and brutal Nigel is teamed with his pal Darko, played by the no-nonsense Til Schweiger. Grint and Buckley provide comic relief, as does Caramitru as the short-lived Victor.

“Charlie Countryman” is engaging and diverting, a movie that never quite goes where you expect it to – even when it shows you the ending right at the start.

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