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    Charlie Bartlett (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | February 23, 2008

    Hope Davis is Anton Yelchin's MILF in "Charlie Bartlett"

    Hope Davis is Anton Yelchin's MILF in "Charlie Bartlett"

    Charlie Bartlett’s Day Off His Meds

    Rating: 2.5/5 ★★½☆☆ 

    Charlie Bartlett. Starring Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey, Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton, Mark Rendall, Dylan Taylor, Megan Park, Jake Epstein, Jonathan Malen, Derek McGrath, Stephen Young, Ishan Davé, David Brown, and Eric Fink. Music by Christophe Beck. Cinematography by Paul Sarossy.  Production design by Tamara Deverell. Costume design by Luis Sequeira. Edited by Alan Baumgarten, A.C.E. Screenplay by Gustin Nash. Directed by Jon Poll. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, 2007, color, 97 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.)

    Charlie Bartlett, Gustin Nash’s writing and Jon Poll’s directorial debuts, respectively, is a cause for celebration—for environmentalists, at least. That’s because it recycles every cliché about teen angst and acceptance that seemed so fresh a quarter century ago when John Hughes defined the genre with such gems as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In year 2008, however, there’s not much left to compost in this mostly trite, but sometimes endearing comedy.

    Even the movie’s title protagonist, brilliantly played by Anton Yelchin, is a complete retread of Wes Anderson’s eccentric preppy wunderkind Max Fischer from the charming 1998 classic Rushmore. Like Max, Charlie is an underachieving overachiever with a knack for getting in trouble at his exclusive Connecticut prep school. His latest scam is forging and selling driver’s licenses to his fellow classmates. His cheerfully vacant mother, played by the chameleon-like Hope Davis, lets the dean’s recommendation of expulsion roll right off her back with a flippant “I think this is a good time for an endowment,” while opening her checkbook.

    Maybe the comely matriarch should have opened something else instead, because poor Charlie gets the boot anyways. On the ride home in their Mercedes stretch limo, though, Charlie and his mom discuss enrolling the aimless youngster in public school. She’s only mildly concerned with her son’s insubordinate behavior. Even though he doesn’t need the money from his clandestine ventures, Charlie pushes the envelope because of an overriding desire for popularity. Not just to fit in, but to be loved. By everyone.

    On the first day of public high school, Charlie takes the bus because he doesn’t want to stand out, but he’s so oblivious that he wears his navy blue prep school jacket (again, just like Max Fischer) and chinos to school. He also boards the wrong bus, the one special ed kids ride. To his utter amazement, when he arrives on campus, he is utterly ignored, save by a retarded boy whom he befriends on the bus.

    One bullyboy, Murphey (Tyler Hilton), who affects a 1977 Johnny Rotten pose, does take an interest in Charlie, predictably slamming his head down the commode in the boy’s restroom. This leads to a lot of expensive psychotherapy for Charlie, and thus the meat of what constitutes the movie’s plot.

    After a manic episode resulting from a dose of Ritalin, Charlie gets an epiphany. He cons all manner of psychotropic drugs out of a coterie of shrinks, and fences the pills to the student body through Murphey, with whom he’s since reconciled. Although the script takes a stab at satirical commentary in showing how easy it is for Charlie to score pills from his docs, it becomes incredibly non-judgmental about his pushing.

    In this crucial sense, Charlie Bartlett is a Rorschach blotter of society’s general attitude of having no expectations and demanding no accountability from its youth. The script gives Charlie a lot of latitude, as he “solves” the general malaise of the school’s teen population. Students, both male and female, line the school corridor waiting for their “appointments” with Charlie, who gives them the pills they need to deal with the horrors of growing up young and middle class in a tony Connecticut suburb. Hey, Charlie’s even such a swell guy that he dispenses little pearls of amateur psychoanalysis, as he does the Lucy Van Pelt bit across the bathroom stall.

    I don’t know whether the filmmakers were attempting to be ironic in making this purposeless kid into a father confessor savior figure, but Charlie soon achieves the “rock star” status among the student body he so longs for. He even scores the girl of his dreams, Susan (Kat Dennings), who’s quite hot in a kittenish, pale Goth way. At this point, I’m expecting Charlie to get his comeuppance. And it seems he is about to, because Susan’s dad is the school principal.

    Unfortunately, Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.) is about as impotent an authority figure as you’ll ever meet. A bitter, divorced alcoholic who hates his life, Gardner futilely lets the inmates run the asylum, and then is shocked (shocked!) to find that anarchy reigns within his realm.

    But, even when a loner student (Mark Rendall) attempts suicide, overdosing on the pills Charlie sold him, we learn that nothing’s really shocking after all, these days. Gardner sternly gives Charlie a lecture about the limits of popularity that sounds like one of Hugh Beaumont’s blandly sensible homilies from “Leave It to Beaver.”

    All throughout this trite, but dark, affair, we never get a glimpse of how dark Charlie’s actions truly are. Even as Charlie’s reckless behavior reaches its nadir, he’s depicted more-or-less as a do-gooder who just goes overboard with his altruistic drug dealing. Sort of like Amelie, but gone just a wee bit awry. Charlie Bartlett’s attempts at social satire are as futile as Principal Gardner’s flaccid leadership. It’s hard to have biting social commentary when a movie’s as toothless as this one.

    John Hughes’s movies from the 1980s worked so well at portraying teen alienation because he wrote them from the point-of-view of the “square peg” nonconformist trying to fit in with the rest of the kids. But, one thing I caught on to in Charlie Bartlett’s depiction of today’s high school students: Not only do the school’s oddballs gravitate towards Charlie, but so does everyone else.

    That’s because it seems the entire student population is one massive collection of “out group” misfits. Even stranger, the teen subgroups are a collection of readily definable rebels from bygone years: Hippies who seem decades too late to the party, as do the 1970s and 80s punks and the Goth kids straight out of the crowd from the Marilyn Manson 1996 “Antichrist Superstar” World Tour. You would’ve thought they’d show kids rebelling against their teachers and administration by hitting the books, but that would probably have been over the filmmakers’ heads. Apparently, when there’s nothing left to rebel against, rebellion becomes just another retro fashion statement.

    Charlie Bartlett showcases the biggest waste of talent since A Prairie Home Companion. Anton Yelchin is a promising talent, and not just in acting—he really makes the ivories smoke when he plays Be Bop while jazzed up on Ritalin. Hope Davis makes the most of her dimwitted character by lending her a touching sweetness. Robert Downey, Jr. outshines the rest of the cast with another virtuoso performance. He really stretches here, having an almost intuitive, Method, feel for playing a harried substance abuser. I’m being facetious, of course.

    But what I’d really love to see is Downey, and Charlie Bartlett, after they get out of rehab. Perhaps that’s too much to expect in today’s sugarcoated slide into nihilism

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White Magazine, Entrepreneur, Hoy! New York, the New YorkPost, RCA Victor (Japan), Scene in San Antonio, Spirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Comedies, Coming of Age Movies, Independent Films, Movie Reviews | No Comments »