Charlie Bartlett is one of those movies that leaves me perplexed. I had no preconceived notions about it, other than it looked like it might be funny, and after seeing it I still don’t have a clear opinion about it, other than it should have either been funnier or more dramatic. It’s kinda just there, just like your stoned uncle Ned (insert the name of another person you know who just takes up space if you don’t have an uncle Ned).
The first thing that struck me was the straight-to-video feel the movie has. It’s hard to explain but after seeing so many films, you have an expectation of how a theatrical release should look and behave. Lots of small scale movies are made on the cheap but can still manage to give the look of higher production costs. Not Charlie Bartlett. It was shot with a meager budget and it shows. As for its behavior; it moves in a very clunky manner – fumbling between attempts at comedy and teen angst drama – almost as if writer Gustin Nash wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to get out of the film. If I were to venture a guess, I think he was aiming for a mix between the smartness of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the self discovery of The Breakfast Club. It’s great to have lofty goals, but this falls well short of the mark.
The story is about Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), a rich kid trying his luck for the first time in the public school system. On his first day, he’s immediately set upon by the school’s resident bully Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton) who promptly kicks his ass for being a dork. Determined to make friends, Charlie starts down the path that got him kicked out of all his previous schools – breaking the law. This time instead of making and selling fake driver licenses (the reason he was expelled from the last school), he decides to sell his prescription meds (Ritalin, Zoloft, etc.) to everyone in need. Being popular has its privileges too. He lands Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings) as his girlfriend and his fellow students seek his advice on all their worldly problems, making him the Dr. Phil of Western Summit High School. Popularity, of course, has its detriments as well. All his attention brings the ire of the principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), a man with a slew of his own personal issues – alcoholism and a relationship with his daughter (who Charlie happens to be dating) that needs repair — that require immediate attention. And so with the setup complete, the dramatic finale involving both Charlie and Nathan can be realized (but you knew that).
As for anything else memorable, the only thing that comes to mind is how unmemorable and uninteresting the lead role of Charlie was. For me, this character needed to be more lively and more engaging – Yelchin breathes very little life into the role – it’s hard to believe the entire school looks to him for help. However, I’m not going to write off Yelchin as an actor just yet, since he may very well have been doing exactly what director Jon Poll wanted (if that’s the case more serious problems abound). Downey Jr. on the other hand carries the weight of a man with demons exceptionally well (I’m sure he drew inspiration from his real world addictions). It is strange to say, but his characterization is so much better than the rest of the cast that it sticks out like a sore thumb. It would have been wrong to ask him to scale back his effort, right?
So while Charlie Bartlett has great intentions and some good ideas, the delivery gets lost due to mostly uninspired writing and questionable direction. I would therefore recommend seeing the countless other high school dramas and comedies that adorn the shelves at your local Blockbuster before seeing this. I’d start with the two that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Then I’d move onto Fast Times at Ridgemont High . . .