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by Mel Valentin on Feb 22, 2008
Structured to follow Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, the sine quo non of coming-of-age tales centered on a brilliantly eccentric young man coping badly with the early onset of adulthood, Charlie Bartlett is, unfortunately, an uneven, derivative imitation from editor-turned-director Jon Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash that nonetheless manages to satirize high school cliques (again), random authority figures, our prescription drug-happy culture, and, with that, the psychiatric profession.
When Charlie Bartlett stumbles (and it stumbles often), it slips into a morass of clichés and contrivances that fatally undermine any good will moviegoers will bring with them into the movie theater. Alas, there’s little the actors or anyone else could do to elevate Charlie Bartlett from the forgettably mediocrity to, well, something that isn’t forgettable or mediocre.
Poor rich kid/rebel without a clue Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) gets kicked out of an expensive prep school for forging fake IDs for his classmates. Charlie wanted to become popular and the fake ID thing accomplished his goal, if only superficially. Smart but emotionally wounded and, thus, easily distracted, the fatherless Charlie literally dreams of a spotlight, a microphone, and adulation from his peers. Farther away from his dream than he’s ever been, Charlie could transfer to another prep school, but in an act of tough love, his pill-popping mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), decides Charlie should attend nearby public high school, Western Summit.
Right on cue, Charlie suffers a beatdown from punk rocker and petty criminal Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton), who sees Charlie as an easy mark. Saved by the principal, Henry Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), an ex-history teacher with a failed marriage, a drinking problem, and a rebellious teenage daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings), who just happens to attend Western Summit. Charlie and Susan manage to strike up a tentative relationship predicated on their negative feelings toward almost everything. To get Bivens out of his hair, Charlie suggests a business partnership. Charlie fills up on his prescription meds from the overeager psychiatrists his mother has on retainer, Bivens distributes them at the end of Charlie’s impromptu therapy sessions, and they’ll split the proceeds.
If Charlie Bartlett sounds implausible or contrived, it’s because it is. Gustin Nash’s screenplay gives Charlie almost next-to-nothing to overcome on the road to self-discovery and personal fulfillment as a pill-dispensing counselor to his fellow high-school students. He listens, they talk, and somehow, they keep coming back for more (probably less for Charlie than his supply of prescription drugs). Charlie even gets Bivens to open up about his heart’s desire, which Charlie duly goes about acquiring for him. Sometimes, Charlie even gives people what they need (as opposed to what they want). Despite his own (superficial) dysfunctionality, Charlie has time and energy to listen to everyone with barely a misstep or unkind word. In other words, Charlie is pure wish fulfillment, a character that can only exist in the rarefied world of fiction, bearing little resemblance to an actual human being.
That aside, Charlie Bartlett has a handful of amusing lines of dialogue, but they come too infrequently to overcome Jon Poll’s pedestrian direction. As Charlie, Anton Yelchin is never less than watchable, if, unsurprisingly, let down by an underwritten screenplay. He’s not as good here as he was in Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog where his portrayal of an innocent, naïve character deservedly won approval by critics. Hope Davis does what she can with a barely there role, collects her paycheck, and exits stage right. Likewise with Robert Downey, Jr. who, at least gets two or three good scenes to remind us why he’s considered one of the most talented actors of his generation. As Charlie’s romantic interest and Gardner’s daughter, Kat Jennings takes a one-dimensional role and makes it three-dimensional. Unfortunately, watchable performances alone aren’t enough, leaving Charlie Bartlett on the wrong side of mediocrity.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Feb 22, 2008