Charlie Bartlett, the feature directorial debut from producer/editor John Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash, is an unabashed piece of high school wish fulfillment. I love a movie that brings wild adolescent dreams together with either genuine perception (I’ll watch Real Genius six times in a week) or with the total abandonment of same. But this fantasy thinks it has meaning, and that makes it almost laughable, for all the wrong reasons.
Title hero Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a rich kid who’s defied authority at every prep school he’s attended. Booted from Rich Douchebags Finishing Academy # 31, he lands at a public high school. Entirely predictable comic situations come to pass when we see that Charlie, who’s smart enough to make perfect fake IDs, doesn’t realize that his prep school habits won’t cut it in a rough and tumble public joint.
But Chuck’s from a broken home, so cut him some slack. Mom (Hope Davis) is a medicated moron and dad is…well, I don’t want to give away all the good stuff. Things at school soon aren’t so bad for him, though. Within thirty seconds he catches the eye of the resident hot smart drama student (Kat Dennings) who is also the daughter of the drunk principal (Robert Downey, Jr.). And while relations with the ruling bully (Tyler Hilton) are initially rocky, Charlie has soon recruited the thug as his right hand man for the school’s new, unlicensed pharmacy.
The movie hinges on the notion that Chuck’s home life is so upturned that he’s effectively parenting himself (and his mother) and is therefore desperate for (a) authority and (b) peer acceptance. All his shenanigans are just pathetic attempts to buy popularity; his public school scheme of offering Lucy’s brand of homespun psychology augmented by affordable prescription drugs turns out to be the best route towards high school fame.
There’s a likable cast here, but I can’t say that quite extends to Anton Yelchin. In general I like Yelchin — he’s one of the few bright spots of the new Trek cast — but here he coasts through the movie with an insincere smile. I could barely believe him in his most intimate, confessional moments; the rest of the time, he actively irritated me.
Yelchin is half of the movie’s core fantasy; the other is the pale but not frail Kat Dennings. I was able to get in step with Dennings more easily than Yelchin, even though she’s got the more cliché role; she manages a semblance of sincerity. More than anything else, though, this makes me want to see her in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, where perhaps she’ll have a more balanced imaginary world to work with.
And then there’s Robert Downey, Jr. While he’s not the movie’s weakest parental unit (honors to a shambling, depressing performance from Hope Davis) he does come across as a guy gently falling backwards into a safety net. Really, his performance feels like it’s in slow motion; every alcoholic shrug and ineffectual tic feels like it’s pulled from his personal video tape library. He’s troubled, losing influence over his daughter and resentful of the newly popular Charlie. And if the parallels between his alcoholism and Charlie’s issues weren’t writ in neon, there’d be a chance for him to save the movie. As is, he barely gets out unscathed.
If the movie’s general tone wasn’t so knowing and full of empty confidence, I might feel more generous. But I consistently felt like Charlie Bartlett was telling me Big Truths about how prescription drugs are bad, about ineffectual authority, about Listening to the Kids, all while it threw up one typical high school character and acceptance fantasy after another.
Where John Hughes had a knack for mixing broad caricature and cutting observation, John Poll just goes with the caricature. The sensitive bully, the wise but immature rich kid, the pretty girl with a soul, the would-be suicide…all here, all ready to make you cringe back into a rigid seat.
There were moments in Charlie Bartlett that I wanted to recognize, like when Charlie gets it on with a hot girl in the backseat of an old car installed in the balcony of a little theater in front of the projector that’s showing old movies to a partying bunch of fellow students. Of course I’d like to be able to say yeah, that’s consistent with some real experience. But it’s not, obviously. Real observation? Not much of that here.
There’s a generational discord in here, I’m sure. I didn’t grow up in a medicated high school; I escaped the Ritalin/Xanax generation by a year or two. But the ability to grasp the plight of misunderstood teenagers requires only baseline empathy; if Poll and Nash figure they can manage it, so can I. So discard the discord; it’s a non-issue.
There’s a group that’s going to love this movie. Charlie Bartlett speaks to such a basic level of angst and teenage empowerment that it’s bound to be the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for a generation, even if it’s not quite as sharp as another Hughes flick, Weird Science.