A rather manic miscalculation, Charlie Countryman is an egregious entry into the pantheon of films about white Americans traveling to exotic lands in search of identity and soul-searching adventure. Following the euthanization of his comatose mother (Melissa Leo), Charlie (a scrawny and sweaty Shia LeBeouf) runs into the hospital hallway and is confronted with her ghost. Simultaneously astounded and emotionally lost, he asks her what he should do with his life, to which she replies, “Go to Bucharest.” After asking her why, she shrugs, “I don’t know, it seems specific.” Such specificity, however, is missing in the cardboard characters and stale tropes that litter this uneven hybrid of a rom-com and foreign crime drama, which follows Charlie on a raucous sojourn through the Romanian capital and toward ostensible enlightenment.
While on the plane heading east, the film’s exceedingly jittery protagonist befriends an eccentric middle-aged Romanian, Victor (Ion Caramitru). After waking up from a nap, Charlie discovers that Victor died in his sleep, but the man appears to him and urges him to find his daughter, Gabi, and relay a message in Romanian. (This conceit, of the dead guiding Charlie on his journey, is risible in its laziness and lack of commitment, disappearing altogether until the film’s end.) It turns out Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), waiting at the airport in tears, is a beautiful young woman with a rough exterior and Charlie is immediately smitten; he even offers her his shirt, which is dappled in Victor’s drool. Gabi is a cellist in the Bucharest Opera House, but alas, her romantic past isn’t as squeaky clean as her bourgeois occupation would suggest. Though her ex-husband, Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), is a murderous, smooth-talking kingpin from the violent underbelly of Bucharest, Charlie nonetheless trails Gabi, insistent that he must woo and protect, remaining bullish to the danger he consistently finds himself in as a consequence.
Obvious acolytes of the School of Danny Boyle Extremism, debut director Fredrik Bond and DP Roman Vasyanov imbue Charlie Countryman with a sickeningly kinetic style, all hyper-saturated, fluorescent lensing, that’s exhausting. The pumped-up, synth-pop soundtrack gives the film something resembling a pulse, but Bond relies too much on the twee score to communicate Charlie and Gabi’s romantic connection, which ends up feeling implausible. In one early scene, Gabi jokes to Charlie, “Maybe you have some kind of fantasy of helping a sad woman in a far away land,” but despite this nod to a salient self-awareness, the film never confronts Charlie’s idealistic, foolhardy impulse. Instead, the film aggrandizes his tenacious stalking—attempting to prove his immediate, undying love via ecstatic running-through-the-streets montages and doe-eyed expressions. Charlie Countryman fears analysis of its own characters, instead pushing an agenda of complete trust in the benevolent non-Romanian characters to persevere through the grimy settings and increasingly precarious scenarios.
Although love is often driven by a naïve, pulsating irrationality, this purported romance never breaks free of its puppy-love setup in order to justify its absurd flights of fancy. The chemistry between LeBeouf and Wood, sporting a fine Romanian accent but consistently reduced to a tough-talking damsel in distress, never fully clicks, and the star-crossed-lover narrative sacks them with uninspired scenes, such as one outside a café where they exchange vulnerabilities and bond over the grief left by dead parents. At turns a fantastical fairy tale about the romantic male ego and a grimy, borderline-xenophobic gangster tale, the film has its own genre-melding identity crisis—unable to balance its put-open “love conquers all” conceit with its violent, exposition-laden third act. Even worse, as the film’s focus shifts hard toward the crime milieu of Bucharest, the filmmakers become hung up on grotesque and preposterous Eastern European thriller clichés. Like Charlie himself, Charlie Countryman is driven more by flamboyant, engorged male libido than a truthful, underlying understanding of how humans actually connect.