Charlie Countryman poses a trap for any less-than-enthused reviewer: The film boasts a plot so bizarre, simply describing what happens risks raising interest, no matter how tedious and strained the results may be. After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a movie in which a Chicago layabout (Shia LaBeouf) impulsively jets off to Bucharest, prompted by a heart-to-heart with his mother’s ghost (Melissa Leo)? The passenger sitting next to him (Ion Caramitru) dies mid-flight, vaulting the eponymous, chronically disheveled hero into a sordid web that involves the dead man’s cellist daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and her jealous, violent gangster ex (Mads Mikkelsen). Throw in a pair of drugged-out hostel roommates from the U.K. (James Buckley and, aggressively distancing himself from the Harry Potter franchise, Rupert Grint), and there’s no way Charlie Countryman wouldn’t be at least compellingly weird, right?
Alas, the protagonist’s Kafkaesque rabbit-hole tumble only succeeds in calling to mind craftier examples of this particular hallucinatory genre (The Tenant, Jacob’s Ladder, Barton Fink), while Fredrik Bond’s attempts at stylishness—the pounding soundtrack includes work by Moby and composer Christophe Beck—come across as pseudo-edgy posturing. There’s not really a story here, just a series of shaggy-dog incidents that typically end with LaBeouf being beaten, hit by a car, or suspended upside-down over water. What narrative emerges amounts to a tease: Given the frantic pile-on of quirky details, it’s inevitable that the film’s mysteries, once solved, would turn out to be more banal than they initially appear.
There are isolated flourishes of originality, though not necessarily of the good kind. It’s unlikely there’s another movie in which a man explains that he’s a Cubs fan because he understands what it’s like to live under tyranny—let alone one in which that throwaway exchange resurfaces as the basis of a major plot point. (Hint: Unless the contents were shot by contemporaries of Edwin S. Porter, any VHS tape labeled “Cubbies win World Series” should be recognized as a case of false advertising.) And although LaBeouf, with his sad-eyed puppy look, can be underrated as an actor (The Company You Keep), his appeal as an irresistible romantic interest for Wood’s musician doesn’t come across at all. (It’s not as if the character, forever wandering exactly where the villains expect him to go, is perceived as smart.) In brief flashes, Charlie Countryman suggests how it might have turned into a decent wrong-man thriller; at the high point, Bond stages an exciting chase through a Bucharest subway station. If only the movie established some sort of reason for planting Charlie in the city in the first place. In a film this hapless, it’s hardly a surprise that no one can keep Bucharest and Budapest straight.