Like its eponymous hero, Charlie Countryman experiences a major identity crisis. It cannot decide whether it’s a romantic travelogue, or a frenzied fish-out-of-water thriller, or a coming-of-age story, or what purpose its magic realism serves. Directed by first-timer Frederik Bond, this is a movie that is too fast-paced to stick to one idea. This means that it’s maddening at times, and yet it’s never boring. Unmoored by genuine character development or a strong plot, Charlie Countryman entertains as a series of small moments. It is feature-length music video and a showcase for a director who might be too ambitious to have any genuine focus.
Charlie (Shia LaBeouf) does not have a good reason to fly to Bucharest. Shortly after the death of his mother (Melissa Leo), he asks her spirit what to do next and she arbitrarily tells him to go to Romania because it seems as good a place as any (Bond and his screenwriter Matt Drake never explain whether Charlie hallucinates or he’s literally speaking to ghosts). On the airplane Charlie sits next to a kindly Romanian man who says he visited Chicago because he wanted to see the Cubs play. The man dies on the flight, which ties Charlie to the man’s daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). He falls in love with her instantly, of course, and he follows her all around the capital. This starts to annoy Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), Gabi’s dangerous husband, but romantic folly consumes Charlie’s heart.
Before I continue, I should explain that I’m in a unique position when reviewing this movie in particular. As it happens, I’m the child of Romanian immigrants and have spent time in Bucharest. While I don’t speak the language, I understand a decent amount. So on one level, at least, Charlie Countryman is unintentionally hilarious. No Romanian anywhere cares about the Chicago Cubs, I’m pretty sure, and Evan Rachel Wood’s accent is terrible. But these are personal quibbles, not reasons to dislike a movie, even if it’s somewhat frustrating to see how Bond skims the surface of a complicated city. Charlie never engages with Bucharest in a significant way, so we’re left with one scene after another where he runs through a market or gets all wistful. At least Bond and Drake have the wherewithal to criticize Charlie; friendly and boorish, he’s always a terrible tourist.
Drake focuses on the budding romance between Charlie and Wood, and I have a sneaking suspicion their relationship is a subversive critique of the now-ubiquitous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. In addition to losing her father, Gabi is a cellist for the National Opera and her fashion choices are just indie enough so she’s beautiful yet approachable. There’s an important early exchange where Gabi acknowledges how she’s the fantasy for all young expat men, and she seems to be speaking to the audience, too. When there are romantic musical cues, Bond goes for the obvious as if he wants us to think of Garden State. Everyone except Charlie knows that pursuing her is a bad idea, and Bond’s direction suggests he’s critical of how Charlie keeps getting himself into danger. By the end, the only reason to love is love itself, and the only person who’s not exasperated by this conclusion is our main character.
There are more sub-plots, although they’re brought up and abandoned without much explanation. Rupert Grint turns up as Karl, a horny Englishman who takes too much Viagra and tries to bang a couple strippers. For reasons left unclear, he’s literally superglued to another young Englishman, and since Charlie has little interest in what happens to his new friends, neither do we. Mikkelsen can be a ferocious actor and even a sympathetic one, but his presence never goes beyond stunt casting. His relationship to Gabi is destructive in a vague way, and there are moments where he’s supposed to be Charlie’s hallucination, I think. To his credit, LaBeouf makes no excuses with a character that’s clueless, irresponsible, and utterly romantic. Even when he’s pursued by violent men, LaBeouf never goes over the top so we can see why a mysterious place would enrapture him.
Charlie Countryman has no attention span. Charlie is constantly running, and never has enough time to think about what he’s doing. There’s an infectious heedlessness to this kind of Ugly American. All the characters are dismissive of him, and eventually help him anyway because either he never gives up or is just so pathetic (I’m not sure which). Charlie meets many frustrated Romanian men and women, and while it’s not apparent at first, they’re avatars for the audience. They hate Charlie, that obnoxious fucker, then realize that he means well. Charlie learns less than nothing about Romania, but his enthusiasm is kind of infectious, isn’t it?