Charlie Countryman is the kind of character Shia LaBeouf should keep playing, and Charlie Countryman is the sort of movie he should keep making, even if this particular one isn’t very good. It suits The Beef because it’s free-spirited and unconventional — the very opposite of the Transformers series. And though it’s overlong and hindered by thematic meandering, at least it fails in interesting ways. There was risk involved here, both for LaBeouf and for first-time director Fredrik Bond. I respect that.
The movie isn’t bad, either, just wobbly and in need of tightening. The title character is a directionless young American who goes to Bucharest after the death of his mother (Melissa Leo), a flighty but devoted parent who suggests the trip to Charlie in a post-mortal vision. Does Charlie see dead people? It would seem so, as it happens again on the plane to Romania, when the wise old Romanian sitting next to him expires mid-flight and then continues speaking to him.
What is stranger than this, however, is that the movie drops the subject of Charlie’s paranormal methods of communication, never to address it again. This is NOT a movie about a guy who talks to dead people, even though the main character totally is that guy. Instead, the story shifts into a Dickensian tale full of danger, romance, whimsy, chance meetings, and astounding coincidences, as Charlie befriends the old Romanian’s daughter, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), and is drawn into her life. She plays cello for an opera company and has a menacing gangster husband named Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), whose partner, Darko (Til Schweiger), owns a Bucharest strip club that Charlie happens to go to one night.
There’s a lot of “happens to…” going on here. Matt Drake’s screenplay is brimming with accidental encounters and serendipity, the underlying implication being that things are happening according to some grand cosmic plan — until a moment late in the film, that is, when the whole notion of a “plan” is dismissed with a laugh. (In that case, why were all these random, implausible things happening?) There’s also plenty of diverting nonsense painting Bucharest as a surreal Pleasure Island, including a wild, drug-fueled hostel Charlie stays at with a couple of English hedonists named Luc (James Buckley) and Karl (Rupert Grint), the latter of whom ingests several Viagra, which leads to problems at the strip club, and, oh, never mind.
Much of the story is baffling and off-kilter, yet it’s occasionally sweet, too. LaBeouf’s dopey earnestness serves him well, and while Evan Rachel Wood’s charms are mostly hidden under a Romanian accent and too much eye makeup, Charlie and Gabi make enough of a connection that we’re willing to root for them when things turn violent and perilous. But the haphazard use of magical realism and the ever-shifting thrust of the narrative makes the film wear out its welcome long before it’s over. The film is an oddity that almost, but not quite, merits consideration.
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