Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 02, 2008 9:41 pm 
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High school upbeat, with a dash of irony

First-time director Jon Pol has brought us another wise teenage outcast with a difference in helming Gustin Nash's screenplay. Charlie Bartlett's eponymous hero (Anton Yelchin) is a seventeen-year-old entrepreneur with a taste for the illegal and a tendency, like Igby's, to get kicked out of every prep school he's sent to--most recently for selling convincingly laminated driver's licenses But his dream, it seems, is nothing more than to help people--including his mom, his principal, and every student of the public high school he winds up at as the story begins. Yelchin, who has a crisp upbeatness here, is ably assisted by Hope Davis as his mother and Robert Downey, Jr. as his alcoholic but soulful principal, as well as by Kat Dennings as Susan, his slightly punk girlfriend (the principal's daughter) not to mention a string of young actors in supporting roles. Charlie's as entertaining, quick on its feet, and eager to please as its protagonist--who's a charmer like Ferris Bueller, or Tom Cruise in Risky Business, or the many other young operators the film channels or pastiches. But the movie will disappoint those who come looking for something as twisted and witty as Igby Goes Down or Heathers.

Two of the school toughs take Charlie for a prig on his first day at the high school; he carries what he explains is an "attaché case," wears a jacket and tie, and eagerly explains the Latin tag on the jacket insignia--presumably left over from the last school. Why he would be so clueless as to dress this way when he's so eager to please is uncertain. Anyway he gets a close encounter with a Boy's Room toilet bowl and then is more thoroughly beaten up later, and that's videoed by the sidekick of Murphy (Tyler Hilton). A shrink "on call" to his family hears he's having trouble concentrating so he prescribes Ritalin. After a wild four days of increasing highs on the Ritalin, Charlie cooks up a new entrepreneurial scheme: he sells the pills at $10 a pop via one of the bullies. Before long he's getting all sorts of psychotropic medications and selling them off to schoolmates using former enemy Murphy as his middleman, which makes him famous and popular in the school.

Goodhearted and basically conventional this film is, but it steps on dangerous ground in daring to suggest that prescription medications are rampantly abused at high school level; and it enters into the world of fantasy in suggesting that Charlie could be such a spectacular success, and later, when he becomes simply the students' mentor.

This role is a substantial step up for Yelchin, who was memorable but minor as the victim in Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog, and reveals an abundance of charm and energy here. He doesn't have the subtlety or irony of somebody like Kieran Culkin--or Holden Caulfield--or the suavity of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off--but his character doesn't call for any of that. Charlie Bartlett is a good natured enabler for people who wants to save them from themselves or help them achieve their dreams. He uses underground capitalism as his starting point, first with the fake ID's, then the prescription drugs, which supposedly he gets by seeing a lot of therapists, and then selling them out of the boy's restroom. Somehow the movie turns Charlie's egregious and essentially needy personality, out of sheer panache, into something appealing. In the end he just would like to be your shrink. It takes a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief, but Yelchin makes that not too hard.

Robert Downey Jr., looking good and exuding ease in what could have been a sweaty, uneasy turn, is in one of his more toned-down recent roles here. His high school principal, Mr. Gardner, is a lush who at every spare moment is seen downing hefty tumblers of whiskey, then playing with a remote controlled boat in his home pool. Except for a drunken scene at the end which, surprisingly, given the actor's own history of substance abuse, isn't particularly convincing, one can't quite even see the point of the drinking for the plot or the character. At times--in that drunken scene anyway--Downey seems to be channeling Kevin Spacey. The excellent Hope Davis makes Charlie's mother appealing: she's lost because his father is missing and is both overindulgent and needy. (When we find out about where the dad is, we understand where the genes for illegal behavior come from.) There is some drama over the fact that Charlie turns out to be dating Principal Gardner's daughter, but most of these figures are peripheral to Charlie's development as an entrepreneur more interested in fame than fortune, and his universal approval by the student body despite the way his projects all end in meltdown. The climax, a summer job for Charles at a psychiatric facility, is awfully flat. The fun has been in getting there and indeed the ideas for Charlie's schemes are better than their working out, which is only sketched in with quick vignettes. On the other hand the film has fairly elaborate sets, focusing more on ornate school annex interiors and teenagers' bedrooms than on developing secondary young characters in depth. In fact even what motivates Charlie himself is anybody's guess. He certainly isn't driven by teen angst. His fantasy is to become some kind of preppy teen Tony Robbins.

Charlie Bartlett is an appealing conventional teen comedy (with a twist or two), lacking the trendy obscenities (and gut-level connectivity) of the Judd Apatow variety or the subtleties and real wit, or the emotion, of the more angst-ridden and dark tales of youthful misfits. It has momentum and an unflagging ability to amuse, but its edge is only skin deep.

U.S. wide release date: February 22, 2008.

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