Charlie Bartlett

Charlie Bartlett


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

An intelligent and precocious boy, raised by a single parent, spends his first day at the local state school still wearing his tie and blazer from the private school that has just expelled him. He falls in love for the first time, and also forms an unconventional bond with the jaded father of one of his fellow pupils. And it all culminates in an elaborate school play, attended by all the major characters, that brings a cathartic resolution to every problem that has been raised.

No, this is not intended as an outline of Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998), but it may as well have been, for John Poll's Charlie Bartlett is patently a Rushmore wannabe, if alas a Rushmore nevergonnabe too. Where Anderson's film was one of the most startling, original and definitive films of its decade, Poll's merely rests on other films' laurels, filling in the gaps where it substantially differs from Rushmore with elements borrowed from other (again, superior) antecedents. When school principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) conducts a vendetta against his cultishly popular ward that drifts from the professional to the personal, that is only following a template established in John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). When Ritalin and a pharmacopoeia of other psychotropic medicaments are introduced as the false salvation from the confusion, alienation and emptiness of teenage life, one detects the long shadow of Mike Mills' Thumbsucker (2005).

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Such derivativeness need not spell the death of the film – but the annoying smugness of main character Charlie (Anton Yelcher) is somewhat more fatal, especially when he, unlike his equally smug ancestor Ferris Bueller, is clearly meant to be the centre of not just our attention but also our sympathy. Charlie's charisma is key to the film's plot, but is never plausibly presented on screen. In one scene for example, immediately after he and his girlfriend Susan (Kat Dennings) have had their first, tender sexual encounter at a party, Charlie crassly announces the fact of his lost virginity to a crowd of his peers. That they all whistle and cheer is hardly surprising – but that Susan too smiles, with a loving look in her eyes, and does not appear remotely embarrassed or humiliated, suggests that screenwriter Gustin Nash needs to learn a thing or two about the girls who populate his script. One wonders if the women in the audience will be quite so adoring of good ol' Charlie as this scene evidently wants us all to be.

The one and only spark of originality in Charlie Bartlett is that its main character wins friends and influence by providing his angst-ridden fellow students with the talking cure (as well as with a backdoor supply of drugs) - and when the drugs run out, so to speak, the pupils still keep coming back anyway for the therapy sessions and the chance to speak and be heard. Of course adolescents notoriously face all manner of problems tied in with their hormonal, social and physical development, but this film seems to suggest that a bit of cod psychology (as opposed to growing up) is the answer – something of a mixed message given the way that actual psychologists here are treated as easily bamboozled dupes, ripe for satire. And are we really to believe that teenagers would confide in, and take advice from, a boy whom they consider a freakish outcast – and would continue to do so once the lure of drugs has evaporated? Let's just say that parents need not worry too much about the success of any copycat shrinks setting up office in the toilet cubicles of their own children's school...

The two best things about Charlie Bartlett are the performances of Hope Davis as Charlie's addled, over-medicated mother, and of Robert Downey Jr as the troubled, alcoholic principal (and Susan's father). Indeed the mere presence of the latter will suffice to attract a broader audience to this film than it deserves. As in the recent Iron Man, Downey Jr's brilliance serves, paradoxically, to highlight the film's many flaws even as it distracts from them and without a cool robotic suit to dazzle us, even he cannot save this film from its scrapheap of second-hand mediocrity. It would be nice if the actor started reapplying his undoubted talents to a film that was actually worthy of them, instead of coasting along in inferior products like this that make him – and him alone – look good by way of contrast.

Charlie Bartlett is not terrible – but in the crowded market of teen comedies, you need to work a whole lot harder to be top of the class, or even to sit at the back with the cool kids. Poll's film manages neither. Instead, in keeping with its protagonist's greatest anxiety, it is more likely to be a film barely liked, if even noticed - and rather quickly forgotten.

Reviewed on: 14 May 2008
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A bright but troubled rich kid unexpectedly finds himself in the American ‘public school’ system – and finds a novel way of beating the bullies.
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Read more Charlie Bartlett reviews:

Jeff Robson ****

Director: Jon Poll

Writer: Gustin Nash

Starring: Anton Yelchin, Kat Dennings, Robert Downey Jr, Hope Davis, Tyler Hilton

Year: 2007

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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