Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review - Charlie Bartlett

Charlie Bartlett opens with a fantasy sequence and closes with the staging of a school play. In between, the title character (played by Anton Yelchin) is expelled from a private school and forced to join a local high school, where his tie and blazer makes him an incongruous figure, and he falls afoul of an older authority figure, but his unique personality and inventive ideas gradually win over his classmates. If that synopsis sounds familiar then you're probably thinking of Rushmore, Wes Anderson's 1999 debut, and Charlie Bartlett does indeed feel like a pasty retread of that picture, with a large dose of Ferris Bueller's Day Off thrown into the mix for good measure. But Jon Poll's film has none of the wit or charm that has seen those films achieve cult status, and it also lacks a memorable, or even appealing, central figure, with Yelchin's performance rarely shifting from a single, grating register.

This lack of development in Charlie makes his transition from nerdy outsider to school hero difficult to accept. The shift in public perception is brought about when Charlie persuades his various therapists to prescribe drugs that he then begins to distribute in school and, in addition to this service, he sets up an office in the boys' bathroom where he acts as psychiatrist to troubled teens. A better movie than Charlie Bartlett might have taken this opportunity to examine the issue of teenagers using prescription medication as a quick-fix solution for their problems, but Gustin Nash's screenplay doesn't dare to dip more than a toe in those waters. The subject is treated in a glib manner until one of Charlie's classmates tries to kill himself, an action rendered irrelevant by the fact that he has barely existed as a character until this point. In fact, hardly any of the film's characters come to life. Kat Dennings' appealing performance as Charlie's girlfriend is the best the film has to offer, with Downey Jr. wasted in a role that gives him absolutely nothing to do, and Hope Davis turning in a career-worst display as Charlie's vacant mother.

John Poll is an editor making his debut in the director's chair here, and he fails to give the move any shape. Both the plot and the characters are developed in a haphazard fashion, with the narrative being almost completely incoherent at points and the film's messages growing increasingly confused. Poll also lacks flair as a filmmaker, and he embarrasses himself on the few occasions that he does try to spice things up visually – like the scene in which Charlie takes Ritalin for the first time, a sequence shot and cut like Dr Jekyll's transformation into Mr Hyde. This is a profoundly depressing picture; the product of people who watched too many old teen movies and thought "Hey, I can do that!", without having any sense of what made those films work in the first place. Charlie Bartlett is stupid, derivative and empty, but it does at least pull off one dubious accomplishment – I didn't think I'd encounter a more annoying, self-satisfied teen than Juno MacGuff this year, but Charlie has now taken that particular crown, and if there are other challengers out there, I sure don't want to meet them.