Friday, February 22, 2008

"Charlie Bartlett" -- * * *

A breezy, agreeable mixture of the fresh and the familiar, Jon Poll's "Charlie Bartlett" is an above-average teen flick that never condescends to the audience, even when it acknowledges the demands of its genre. Resembling a lesser "Rushmore" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the movie is often funny while actually addressing the sort of issues usually avoided in like-minded films. It's not quite as subversive as it thinks it is, or as envelope-pushing as its R-rating had me hoping (there's no reason 13-to-17 year olds shouldn't be able to see this), but there's enough laughs, interesting ideas and worthwhile performances on display to merit a trip to the theater

Our titular character (played by Anton Yelchin) is a beyond-his-years, blazer-wearing 17-year-old who strives to be uber-popular. Despite that description, he's not an insufferable prick; he's an extremely bright, fairly sociable, and equipped with a keen wit. However, after being expelled from one too many private schools (he was manufacturing fake IDs), he finds himself in a public school and a wee bit out of his element. He's beaten up by the prettiest bully you've ever seen (Tyler Hilton) and rejected by fellow students, but Charlie isn't daunted. His too-understanding mother (an especially lovely and funny Hope Davis) sends him to the family's therapist-on-call, who promptly prescribes Charlie a plethora of Ritalin.

After a quick Ritalin-fueled freakout, Charlie sees the drug's potential to get one high, and begins selling it to the other students. This recreational drug-dealing soon becomes an attempt to help fellow students. Charlie plays psychiatrist in the men's restroom, takes his peers' symptoms back to his therapist and gets them the appropriate pills. A drug dealer with a heart of gold, so to speak. The school's well-meaning, alcoholic principal (Robert Downey Jr.) has a feeling something's going on, and has issues with Charlie spending an increasing amount of time with his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings), but can't prove anything.

"Charlie" tackles some pretty serious topics, including teen suicide, the price of teenage popularity, alcoholism and the importance of actually enjoying what it is that you do, but only rarely does Poll fumble with the tone. Mostly everything is handled with a light touch, and the broad laughs are deftly balanced with the grounded realistic elements. A potentially trite romance between Charlie and Susan, in particular, is handled with proper awkwardness and slow, unsure development. Some have latched onto the movie's skepticism of prescription-drugs-for-teens, but that didn't seem as fresh (or valid) to me after being covered a few times before, in similar films like "Thumbsucker." I wouldn't classify "Charlie Bartlett" as a message film, but it certainly has some things to say, and mostly does so successfully and unobtrusively.

Ultimately, the movie is more enjoyable and amusing rather than flat-out hilarious, but it's not without its genuinely funny elements. I particularly enjoyed Charlie's jazzy duets with his mother singing old TV theme songs, and his falsetto audition for a Shakespeare play, but there are similar moments abound. Poll offers us nice little touches like Mrs. Bartlett leaving a note "Ritalin in bag, dinner in oven," as well as bigger moments like the nonchalant (but honest) way he deals with the loss of our protagonist's virginity.

For such a young dude, it seems Yelchin has been around forever. For a while, it seemed like he would pop up in virtually every film I would watch. If "Charlie" was getting a stronger push, I have no doubt it would be the young actor's coming out party and his first step towards stardom. It's not a terribly complex performance/role, but it's an incredibly charismatic one,and Yelchin makes Charlie pop off the screen. It may strike some as occasionally over-antic, but he's an incredibly likeable, energetic presence, and with a bit more depth, it would likely be hailed in a similar manner to Ellen Page's turn in "Juno."

Truth be told, I love Robert Downey Jr. I have a tendency to dig him in everything he's in. At the worst, he's fun to watch ("The Shaggy Dog"), and at his best, he's brilliant ("Zodiac") or hilarious ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"). He is the sole reason I am supremely excited about a superhero movie (this summer's "Iron Man"), a genre I have a tendency to not give a shit about. Here, he's truly wonderful. Totally understanding the kind of movie he's in, Downey works with the tone and feel of the film, but basically plays the character completely straight and it pays off in spades.

He cops the elements that made Jeffrey Jones so perfect in "Ferris Bueller," but adds shades of sadness, pathos and complexity, rather than just a stark villain. Late in the proceedings, Downey manages to do the movie's best acting in what may be the movie's worst, most contrived scene. All I'll say is it involves a handgun and a bottle of liquor, and without Downey's performance, it would be eye-rolling. He single-handedly (a) makes the scene work, and (b) transforms the movie from a fun diversion into something worth making the effort to go out and see.

I don't think they're significant, but "Charlie" does have some problems. There are some broad high school caricatures that distract from the way some of the more recognizable elements are handled, and occasionally the shifts from comedy to drama are a little rough. The aforementioned gun/liquor sequence bears mentioning again because it does leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth, even if the film does atone for it with Downey's last appearance later on. And it's SO not a big deal, but it did nag at me how the filmmakers so blatantly pull a "She's All That" with Tyler Hilton's bully. Late in the movie, he receives a "makeover," but it's clear from the very first scene that he's hot, they just slapped a mohawk and a chain wallet on him.

Despite its flaws, "Charlie Bartlett" is a likeable, amusing, good-natured teen movie that is, unfortunately, going to get lost in the shuffle this weekend. Given the amount of releases, I'll be surprised if it even makes the top 10. It's consistently entertaining and sharply written, but the real reasons to check it out are Yelchin and Downey. As I mentioned, I think 13-to-17 year olds will love this movie, but anyone else with an appreciation for genre films that step above their required elements should have a good time as well. It won't change your life, but it's nice to see a movie that actually strives to be fun, say some important things without preaching, AND has the good taste to incolude a mini-musical sequence featuring Cat Stevens' wonderful "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out." The movie may not reach the heights of the film that song is intended to invoke, "Harold and Maude," but it makes me happy knowing at least some filmmakers are striving to.


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