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Charlie Bartlett

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 02/24/08 22:00:17

"Worth it for Downey, but then few films aren't."
3 stars (Just Average)

Are teenagers today so hungry for a sympathetic ear that they’ll fall in line, cult-like, behind anyone who gives them drugs and listens to their complaints?

That’s the impression left by Charlie Bartlett, which had been knocking around unreleased for a while until MGM, apparently hoping they had another Juno on their hands, dusted it off for a slow February weekend. Parts of Charlie Bartlett are enjoyable, especially Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as a high-school principal who hates his life. Too much of it, though, is pilfered from other films (good and bad), and what we’re left with is a mildly contemptuous portrait of teenagers, fleshed out in only the most rudimentary and predictable ways.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a privileged lad who’s been booted out of any number of private schools. His modus operandi seems to be to ingratiate himself with his fellow students by “helping” them in illegal ways: his latest offense is making fake IDs. Charlie, who daydreams of being beloved by masses of students chanting his name, quickly figures out how to fit in at his new public school: he gets psychiatric meds from various shrinks and sells them to students while encouraging them to vent about their issues. (The “therapy” scenes unfold in adjoining toilet stalls, a parody of a confessional, with Charlie as priest.) The movie, directed by former editor Jon Poll from a script by first-timer Gustin Nash, clearly disapproves of medicating students and deplores the society that feeds them Ritalin to extract their rebellious spirit. Charlie, after all, is only doing what the kids’ parents would pay to have done professionally if they could afford it.

It’s too bad that the screenplay follows the same track as many of Gustin Nash’s favorite films. Charlie himself is Ferris Bueller, Max Fischer, Harold Chasen, Lloyd Dobler, take your pick of cool misfits. He falls in love with the principal’s daughter (Kat Dennings). He turns the school bully (Tyler Hilton, looking like a butch version of Morrissey) into his business partner in his pharmacological endeavors. His mom (Hope Davis) is Xanaxed (and moneyed) out of reality. He befriends a mentally challenged kid and hires him as muscle. If there’s an original voice here, it gets lost in the cacophony of previous original voices Nash cribs from.

The actors, including the sometimes-annoying Yelchin, mostly take their cue from the deadpan style of Wes Anderson films, which works better in Wes Anderson films. The only person in the movie who suggests real, painful experience is Downey’s Principal Gardner. Downey speaks very quietly and precisely and with a covert wit that tells you that Gardner, a former history teacher, really isn’t cut out for a disciplinarian role. Gardner watches the students dyspeptically on a camera system, which provides the film’s third-act conflict (this time cribbed from Do the Right Thing). We get it: Kids are drugged and spied on to prevent another Columbine, and people like Gardner, who remember what they were like as teenagers, meekly acquiesce to the administration. Downey calmly stays in the moment, as he’s always done, and carries his scenes effortlessly.

A movie that focused on the prickly relationship between Gardner and his daughter, who awkwardly attends his school, would’ve been a different movie but a better one. Charlie Bartlett simply isn’t unique or interesting enough in itself to play in the same league as its betters; it doesn’t even have the controversially stylized dialogue of Juno. Despite the occasional insight, it’s a rather bland affair, a narcissist’s wish-fulfillment that softens every conflict and deadens emotion as effectively as Charlie’s prescriptions or Gardner’s desk bottle of booze.

Though it gives lip service to Rebellion and Being Yourself, it’s essentially a megalomaniacal nerd’s dream of having people chant his name, stand in line to talk to him, and do whatever he says without question. "Charlie Bartlett" comes out for something new and weird: geek fascism.

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