Saturday, June 28, 2008

Charlie Bartlett: Grade D

Charlie Bartlett (2007)
Anton Yelchin, Kat Dennings, Hope Davis, Robert Downey Jr. Director Jon Poll.

This high school, coming of age picture is half way between a comedy and a drama. As a comedy it is more along the lines of Napoleon Dynamite than the vulgar (but funny) humor of SuperBad, but it doesn’t contribute anything of its own, not the snappy teen dialogue of Juno, or the silly caricatures of Mean Girls. Dramatically, the movie poster quotes John Hughes’ 1968, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, about a high school wise guy, but that film had a charm that this heavy-handed and unmotivated story lacks.

Charlie Barlett (Yelchin) is a rich kid who has been kicked out of private school for reasons unknown, so his mother (Davis) enrolls him in public school, where he cannot make friends. There was a great opening here for some intellectual snobbery and class warfare humor, but it passes by. Instead Charlie sees a psychiatrist after being beat up in school (blaming the victim?) and the Dr. gives him Ritalin, which gets him high (which Ritalin does not do). Charlie starts selling the pills at school to win popularity. He reads the DSM to trick other psychiatrists into giving him additional meds (without his mother’s knowledge?) and soon he is a wheeler-dealer BMOC. He falls for the principal’s (Downey) daughter (Denning). None of the underage drinking, smoking, drug-dealing and drug taking is funny (or even noticed by adults). All the humor derives from Charlie being precocious about teenage mental health. The teens’ “rebellious” attitude toward the school administration is contrived. What kind of school is this, anyway? Nobody cracks a book, goes to a class, or throws a baseball. Hope Davis and Robert Downey Jr. give excellent performances worth seeing. Yelchin is a pretty face, but only competent as an actor, not a shooting star like Paige’s Juno.

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