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Movie Review: Charlie Bartlett
Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings moon over each other in the shithouse | Photo courtesy of MGM
Charlie Bartlett is the hardest type of film to review because even though it misses, it doesn't miss by terribly much. After watching it and thinking about it for awhile, I kept returning to an Australian movie I saw last summer, Introducing the Dwights. Like Charlie Bartlett it was a film built on a curio of a script and some fiercely memorable performances (I'm still thinking about Emma Booth), but also like Charlie Bartlett it failed as a film because it ultimately made some narrative decisions that crippled it.
The worst choice made in Charlie Bartlett--the choice that kills it--is the timid way in which it treats its potentially dark and rich subject matter. A wealthy, slightly unbalanced kid turning his fellow students on to the wonders of pharmacology all while schtupping the principal's loopy daughter is a great premise. Indeed, Charlie Bartlett as envisioned by a provocateur like Larry Clark would have been a searing and unnerving film. In its current state, though--almost yearning to be liked--it's just too limp and wan.
You can have your Johnny Depp. I'll take Robert Fucking Downey Jr. | Photo courtesy of MGM
What's so terrible about its timidity is that it comes relatively late in the film. After its quick opening set-up (funny), the film sets its titular star on a serious collision course with the authority around him (compelling). Just when things start to come to a head, though, an awful die is cast: (spoiler, but obvious well in advance) one of the kids tries to commit suicide by overdosing on some of the pills that Charlie sold him. And what happens next? Well...nothing really. Charlie is told not to do it again and that's that. That's that. That's that?!
Look, in no way do I look to movies to impart any moral lessons to society. What I do ask of them, however, is to make decisions that are consistent with the reality they've created. Is it even remotely--remotely--plausible that a hugely prolific teen-age prescription drug dealer would simply walk away unscathed after one of his "patients" tried to off himself? What's worse, the movie seems to forget the whole thing even happened for the last 30 minutes of the film! It's as if one movie ended and a new one began.
In this new movie, Charlie is some sort of folk anti-hero who the students rally around in an effort to rid the school of its unseemly video surveillance. Ultimately, though, Charlie quells their nascent rebellion by reminding them that all they really need to do to be happy is to...well, be happy with themselves. Then he's arrested. Then there's a play about how teenagers are misunderstood. Huh? I love movies with complex, convoluted plots but in the case of Charlie Bartlett I just caught a whiff of desperation in its final, thrashing machinations.
Charlie Bartlett might have worked if it were content being nothing more than a wicked, funny film about adult hypocrisy, teenage angst--you know, the usual adolescent stuff. Instead, it tries to say something significant and stumbles over itself in the process. I won't tell you not to see it because, frankly, I believe America should see every movie in which national treasure Robert Downey Jr. appears. What I will say is lower your expectations and you might just get by. Maybe that should have been the wisdom that Charlie Bartlett imparted to his fellow students. God knows I could have used that advice in high school.