Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.
Release Date: February 22nd, 2008 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jon Poll Actors: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Megan Park, Tyler Hilton
lternating between serious drama and comic absurdity, “Charlie Bartlett” never settles on a consistent mood, which in turn mixes the messages it attempts to deliver. At times the comedy works well, while at others the heartfelt drama attains admirable poignancy, but as a whole, the film fails to reach an equilibrium that demands emotional participation. It’s a passive picture – one that requires nothing from its audience. Not without an authenticity in portraying the habits and pandemonium of youth, it nonetheless marginally satisfies in the end with a feeling of accomplishment – no matter how fleeting.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a high school troublemaker, not purposely out to cause mayhem but driven by his ceaseless quest to be needed. After being kicked out of every private school in the city, Charlie winds up at Western Summit Public High School, where he immediately finds himself an outcast once again. Ignored by the popular kids and bullied by the bullies, Bartlett soon devises a plan to garner the attention he desperately seeks.
Working with enemy-turned-business-partner Murphy (Tyler Hilton), Charlie sets up a psychiatry office in the boys’ bathroom to begin advising those with problems and prescribing pills from the limitless supply he acquires from his own personal shrink. Finding his calling by trying to fix others’ emotional quandaries, Bartlett seems to have finally attained the popularity he’s always wanted. But things begin to spiral out of control when suspicious principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) starts to wise up to his games – all while young Charlie falls in love with Gardner’s daughter Susan (Kat Dennings).
Anton Yelchin turns in an enthusiastic performance as the soft-spoken Bartlett, creating as likeable a character as the script allows. His motives and excuses (he’s just a kid, after all) often conflict with the process of truly identifying with this rushed-into-adulthood, wannabe psychiatrist, but when reality isn’t inexplicably working in his favor, his trials and triumphs garner a more deserved appreciation. And Kat Dennings plays an adequate love interest, though she’s never able to surpass the confines of her character’s stereotypes. Fortunately, the ever-entertaining Robert Downey Jr., whose quirky nature makes for a rather unexpected mentor, outshines both young stars. In a supporting part, Hope Davis also steals some scenes as a troubled-to-the-point-of-carefree-insanity mother, who means well but lacks any parental, disciplinary fortitude.
The primary downfall to “Charlie Bartlett’s” dramedy structure is that it doesn’t balance the two genres with the realism necessary to sustain its more tragicomic approach to portraying high school life. Initially, it attempts to be flat-out comedy, with a jokey introduction to estranged characters, capricious high school shenanigans, and general youthful mischievousness. But then it shifts sharply into starker territory, devoid of a clever transition.
The primary predicament the film will face is finding its audience. Teens who are attracted by the zany trailer will undoubtedly be disappointed by the time the anti-drug/anti-promiscuity singing montage occurs near the conclusion, while adults won’t have the patience for the fantastical portrayal of adolescent angst. Some sequences possess universal appeal, but not enough of it can adequately cater to both demographics.
Ultimately, though “Charlie Bartlett” contains an intermittently believable sensibility toward misguided youth, it allows its comedic antics to routinely veer the film away from such studious precision. This causes the majority of conflicts to work out in Charlie’s favor far too easily. It’s also a bit of a cheat to have the teenaged protagonist overcome adversity with a heavy reliance on readily available money – something most other fictional, aspiring instigators must do without.
– The Massie Twins