There's a piquant irony in Zac Efron backing out of "Footloose" because he didn't want to be the "High School Musical" guy -- and then having the movie he chose to do draw mainly from the "High School Musical" set.
Efron's soapy "Charlie St. Cloud" grossed just $12.1 million this weekend, largely because of goodwill from tweens and teens who like Efron from his Troy Bolton days, according to box-office experts. Showing less goodwill were critics, who collectively gave the tearjerky story of a lovelorn man conjuring up memories of his late brother a mere 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, and used such descriptors as "unintentionally hilarious" (the New York Post, Lou Lumenick).
But in an interview with my colleague Amy Kaufman, Efron said he felt confident that acting in a serious drama would help him move into the next phase of his career.
"I was looking at 'Footloose' and how great it would be, and every person you talk to is like, 'That's a great move. That's exactly what we would expect from you,' " he said, pouring himself some tea last month. "And after you hear that a few times, you kind of just go, 'I have to look myself in the face.' I wanted to slow down and do something challenging for the right reasons — not for the money or notoriety or for more fame or to be the king of genre."
Compared to singing and dancing through homeroom, the movie represents an evolution, but only the way going from an amoeba to a paramecium might be considered an evolution.
The shaky reviews might suggest Efron should stick with the tween roles as long as he can eke them out. But it's clear he wants more, and it's also clear he has at least a little more talent than this (it was even clear in "17 Again"). And yet he continues with the maudlin teen fare, a point underscored last week when it was revealed he was attached to "The Lucky One," the latest Nicholas Sparks Kleenex-puller. While superficially a more dramatic role, the project smells of the same saturated schmaltz of "High School Musical," only in non-singing form.
The simple answer to this conundrum -- assuming he wants to solve it -- is for Efron to choose better material, though of course that presumes it's there to be chosen. "St. Cloud" came about because it was the most adult option in a sea of kiddie choices. Those options may be expanding a little for Efron now, especially as he gets his production company going and studio Warner Bros. redoubles its efforts to keep him happy. The studio recently optioned remake rights to the Swedish hit "Snabba Cash," a movie about an ingénue drug dealer that's as much character piece as action thriller. So he at least should have a few more choices over the coming years.
There's a silver lining in the failure of "Charlie St. Cloud"; you could look at the results and infer that audiences don't want to see Efron as a vulnerable heartthrob. It's an open question, though, whether we want to see him as something else.
Personally I disagree with the last paragraph. To me the silver lining is, you put him in a movie that was not that well-reviewed and not that well-promoted and it still made $12 million dollars. Jeezbee pointed out to me The Playlist made this connection as well and it's true. If he wasn't a star, this would've banked $6 million tops, just like the similarly melodramatic and poorly marketed film Extraordinary Measures. People showed up for him. I do agree about the better material thing though... and about The Lucky One.