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Overall Rating
3.3

Awesome: 21.62%
Worth A Look: 21.62%
Average: 21.62%
Pretty Bad35.14%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 7 user ratings


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Charlie Bartlett
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Kid Is Decidedly Not Alright"
2 stars

If you were to make a list of generally beloved films about quirky and iconoclastic young people struggling to stand out and be heard in an otherwise cold, cruel and conformist world, it would certainly include the likes of “Harold & Maude,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “Rushmore.” While I can’t say that I necessarily endorse all of these films (“Harold & Maude,” in particular, is one that I have never cottoned to despite giving it numerous chances over the years), I will concede that even the weakest of them were sincere attempts on the part of their creators to give an original cinematic voice to teenagers that didn’t involve farting, scoring with the neighborhood MILF or being hacked into bits by a psycho in a hockey mask. From its opening moments, it is clear that the new comedy “Charlie Bartlett” clearly wants to be ranked alongside of those aforementioned titles but it has no idea of how to go about it other than by blatantly copying key elements from them in the hopes of inspiring enough subliminal connections that some people might actually be deluded into making such comparisons. It doesn’t work and the result is a film that is smug, painfully unoriginal and about as hip and edgy as a trip to Sears.

Our hero is poor little rich kid Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) and as the film opens, he is daydreaming about being celebrated for his astounding achievements in prep school–you know, like in the opening of “Rushmore.” Alas, not only is he not the big man on campus, he is being drummed out of the place altogether (you know, like in “Rushmore”) for making fake ID’s. As Charlie has already burned his bridges at every other prep school in the area, his addled socialite mom (Hope Davis) has no choice but to enroll him in a nearby public school (you know, like in “Rushmore” and I promise not to point out any more of the similarities between the two). Charlie’s early attempts to fit in fail spectacularly but things turn around when, through circumstances too silly to get into here, he finds himself serving as a sort of psychiatrist for his fellow students–he listens to their problems and even manages to get them prescriptions for needed medications by going to his own battery of shrinks and aping their troubles. Before long, Charlie is the toast of the school and this inevitably puts him in the cross-hairs of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who is understandably perturbed about this new kid usurping his authority (authority that the formerly cheerful history teacher doesn’t even necessarily want in the first place) and becomes even more so when he discovers that his rival for the hearts and minds of the student body has already claimed the heart and mind (among other things) of his own daughter (Kat Dennings).

Even if I factor out the film’s lack of originality as a reason for disliking it, there are still plenty of other reasons to find “Charlie Bartlett” wanting. Hell, I am even willing to overlook the whole concept of Charlie being able to get through to his fellow students partly because of his ability to get them the pharmaceuticals they need to get through the day is utterly absurd, even though it is exceedingly difficult to swallow the film’s apparent suggestion that part of the problem with today’s youth is not that they are being over-medicated but that they aren’t being medicated enough? No, my problem with “Charlie Bartlett,” both the character and the film, is that both of them are operating under the mistaken delusion that they are a lot more charming, witty and compelling than they actually are. Instead of providing the promised blend of edgy comedy and compelling drama, Gustin Nash’s screenplay is a pile of half-baked epiphanies, annoying characters, plot threads that go absolutely nowhere (the worst being the material about Charlie’s absent father) and a would-be rabble-rousing conclusion that couldn’t fall flatter. (Much of this involves the production of a “controversial” student play that is so embarrassing to behold that I actually thought for a moment that it was supposed to be a spoof of overly sincere after-school specials until I realized that it was meant to be taken seriously.) Instead of finding an original cinematic voice, first-time director Jon Poll is content to simply copy things that worked in other, better films. Worst of all, instead of giving us the kind of fascinating and compelling character that would be worth following for a couple of hours, Anton Yelchin gives a one-note performance that is as smug and vaguely annoying as everything else–this is the kind of alienated youth exercise in which even the most sympathetic audience members, at least those with taste, may find themselves siding more with the chief authority figure than in the putative hero

Now that you mention it, the chief authority figure in “Charlie Bartlett” is the most engaging character on display and that is mostly because of the marvelous Robert Downey Jr. performance that is the film’s chief saving grace. Easily one of the most engaging actors at work today, Downey is one of those live-wire actors whose mere presence in a film can single-handedly boost even the weakest material. Here, the role is especially thankless but he really and truly does wonders with it–he quietly and effectively manages to carve out a fully-dimensional portrait of a man whose personal and professional lives went down the tubes the minute that the former history teacher was promoted into a position in which he was asked to oversee students instead of educating them. Every scene with him, especially the surprisingly complex ones between him and on-screen daughter Kat Dennings (whom you may recall as Catherine Keener’s daughter in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), is a gem and when you watch him so consistently rising over the otherwise tired material, you may find yourself wonder what a film along these lines might have been like if it had been made 20 years ago with him in the lead role. My guess is that while that potential version would have still had its share of flaws, Downey would have been so good in the part that he might have raised the entire thing to the level of a classic all by himself–the kind of film that would have deserved comparison with those titles cited in the first paragraph–and who knows, “Charlie Bartlett” might have found itself pinching elements from it as well.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15614&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/22/08 16:00:00
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User Comments

1/09/09 Anonymous. i wish i had someone like charlie bartlett in my life... 4 stars
12/06/08 Lee cheerful, fun, light comedy 5 stars
10/07/08 Charles Tatum Alternately compelling and irritating, but Downey's great 3 stars
4/25/08 Heather Purplethorne Another leave-you-hanging ending. Harrowingly melodramatic film before that. 2 stars
3/09/08 Bubba O'Reilly Ferris Bueller goes to school.... on Valium 3 stars
3/03/08 Nicholas Plowman Good review, I loved this film. It opened in South Africa awhile ago, I cant stop seeing it 4 stars
7/30/07 Morghan Phoenix Watched it at the pre-release showing and would definatly say this is worth the money. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  22-Feb-2008 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2008

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Jon Poll

Written by
  Gustin Nash

Cast
  Anton Yelchin
  Robert Downey Jr.
  Hope Davis
  Tyler Hilton
  Jake Epstein
  Lauren Collins



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