Eye For Film >> Movies >> Charlie Bartlett (2007) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
The American teen comedy has rarely been in more robust health than it is at the moment. Hot on the heels of Juno and Superbad comes this smart, sweet debut offering from director Jon Poll and screenwriter gustin Nash, with a standout turn from rising star Anton Yelchin. He plays the eponymous Charlie, a pampered teenager with an absent father and a wealthy but ditzy mother (Hope Davis). Expelled from nearly every prestigious American private school there is, he’s been unable to make friends and is desperate to be admired and, even more importantly, noticed. This translates itself into entrepreneurial scams which invariably land him in hot water. When a fake driving license racket sees him turfed out of Poshkids High for the last time, there’s no alternative but to put him into the dreaded ‘public school’ system.
His preppy manner goes down like the proverbial lead balloon at the US equivalent of Hoodie Street Comprehensive and he gets a thorough kicking from the class bullies, led by Murphy (Tyler Hilton). Appalled, mum brings in a tame psychiatrist who dishes out prescription drugs like Smarties. This gives Charlie a new idea to win favour with all the cliques – he sets himself up as an ‘agony uncle’ to the school, listening to everyone’s problems then displaying the appropriate symptoms to the psychiatrist and selling on the resulting medication.
Enlisting Murphy as his business partner, Charlie soon finds the money is rolling in and he’s become ‘best friend’ to the entire school. At last, he’s found the admiration he craves – especially from the smart and beautiful Susan (Kat Dennings). Unfortunately, she’s also the daughter of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr), who has gotten wind of Charlie’s scam and is determined to bring him down.
It’s here that the film turns from a one (admittedly good) joke idea into something a little more interesting. The battle for Susan’s affections between Charlie and Gardner (a single dad with his own casebook-full of psychiatric problems) plays some interesting riffs on ideas of responsibility, wasted potential and – dare we say it – Oedipal confrontation.
At times the relationship between Yelchin and Downey Jr has echoes of the Bill Murray-Jason Schwartzmann duet in one of the all-time classics of the genre, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Both films are essentially about a boy growing up too fast and a man grown old too soon, who love the same person for different reasons.
This film never quite achieves the heights of Anderson’s hilariously off-kilter masterpiece. But it’s got a good heart and plenty of laughs, before the inevitable (and disappointingly conventional) ‘turn for the serious’, where one of the pupils turns genuinely suicidal and Charlie realises there are problems that can’t be solved by parrotted shrink-speak and a blank prescription form. An edgier ‘no hugs, no lessons’ type of climax would have been more interesting in a film which has some sharp observations to make about American society’s penchant for soundbite diagnoses and pill-bottle solace in place of genuinely confronting its problems or learning from its mistakes. But at heart, this is still just a teen comedy, and a pretty good one.
Poll (editor on Meet The Parents and the Austin Powers movies) keeps things tight and pacy and Nash’s script, like Diablo Cody’s for Juno, has plenty of zingy one-liners and comic riffs. And the performances are a treat. Yelchin (the kidnapped kid in Alpha Dog and soon to be Chekov in JJ Abrams’ take on Star Trek) is a charismatic and believable anti-hero, smart but insecure and neither a walking wisecrack-machine nor a stereotypical ‘mixed-up kid’. Dennings is a feisty, down-to-earth foil to him, displaying far more maturity than either her suitor or her dad; and Hilton (who played the young Elvis in Walk The Line) develops from a stereotypical bad-ass to reveal (like the film itself) an essentially sweet nature beneath the ubercool ‘tude.
Davis is convincingly brittle and bewildered in a somewhat underwritten part and Downey Jr is as always a joy to watch. It’ s not the first time he’s been cast as a wired, dysfunctional boy-man but let’s face it, nobody does it better; if he were doing Ibsen you’d still want a scene where he wanders round wild-eyed in his ‘jamas, a bottle in one hand and a gun in the other. He doesn’t disappoint here, but Yelchin more than matches him for screen presence. Their enjoyable double act helps paper over a few cracks in the plot (would Charlie really win over the whole school so quickly and completely? Would such a flaky character as Gardner be made a principal in the first place?) and forms the highpoint of a funny and basically optimistic film. If you want a feel-good night out with a bit of an edge you could do a lot worse than to book an appointment with ‘Doctor’ Bartlett.Reviewed on: 09 May 2008