Judge Paul Pritchard would advise against taking advice from strangers in public toilets; they're generally just spouting crap.
"So are you a total faggot or what?"
Disappearing from cinemas shortly after it was released, Charlie Bartlett seemed set to pass into obscurity. Failing to come close to recouping its budget, Jon Poll's directorial debut also failed to gain the same critical response as its soulmates, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Rushmore. Now released on DVD, Charlie Bartlett stares into the abyss, its last chance to gain some kind of cult following is here. But should you care? Yes. Yes, you should.
Facts of the Case
Having been kicked out of numerous boarding schools (for activities including faking driving licenses), Charlie Bartlett is forced to attend public high school. Charlie has his work cut out in seeking popularity with his new classmates, which isn't easy when you're the only kid at school wearing a blazer.
However, thanks to some sage advice, along with a little drug dealing, Charlie attains the popularity he so desperately craves, only to find his antics brought to the attention of the school's principal. Before long, Charlie finds himself acting as the mouthpiece for the pupils, and a marked man with the school's superintendent and principal.
If Charlie Bartlett were a pie, its ingredients would consist of a big helping of John Hughes, a splash of Rushmore, and a pinch of Donnie Darko. It would taste delicious, yet never quite fill you, leaving you wanting more despite being not one bit disappointed with the meal you had just eaten.
Jon Poll's directorial debut, Charlie Bartlett seems to have picked up some very mixed reviews, almost making the film appear to be a love it/hate it affair; comparisons to the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off abound. Yet to see the film purely as a modern-day Ferris Bueller is to miss the point a little. Where Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a celebration of youth, with a central protagonist getting the upper hand over his seniors at every turn, Charlie Bartlett is more concerned with the problems facing today's youth, as if Hughes' focus in Ferris Bueller's Day Off had been on Bueller's troubled pal Cameron instead. The result is a film that contains fewer laughs and dabbles in much darker territory, but perhaps contains a little more heart.
Introducing us to Charlie (Anton Yelchin, Alpha Dog) just as he is expelled from his latest boarding school, the film presents a character desperate for the approval of his contemporaries—something we learn is often the cause of his downfall. Along with a desire to be popular, Charlie possesses an almost obsessive need to help others, a character trait that, though endearing, has its origin in a somewhat traumatic part of Charlie's upbringing. Holding counseling sessions in his office (i.e., the boys' toilets), Charlie dishes out advice to fellow classmates and finds himself hurtling up the popularity ladder. Thanks to the therapy that Charlie himself is currently undergoing, he finds himself able to acquire various drugs, which he, somewhat irresponsibly, begins prescribing to his "patients" along with his advice. Though well-intentioned, Charlie's fall from grace is rooted in his "drug dealing," thus offering an interesting perspective on the current trend for controlling teens behavior with drugs.
Charlie, himself, has his demons: problems at home with a mom who is reliant on a cocktail of drugs to make it through each day and an absent father are taking their toll on young Charlie. Hope comes in the form of Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings, The 40 Year Old Virgin). Having a far from ideal home life herself, following the breakup of her parents' marriage, Susan connects with Charlie almost instantly, and the pair soon becomes inseparable. It is through this relationship that Charlie begins to find some truth to his own life, bringing about the realization that, perhaps, the popularity he craves isn't the answer to his problems. Of course, the path of true love never did run smooth, and to that end Charlie and Susan have one giant obstacle in their way—Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), whose eye is soon drawn to Charlie and his questionable activities; the principal also happens to be Susan's father. Much like everyone else in this film, Principal Gardner has an unhealthy addiction, in his case a penchant for getting drunk while waving a handgun around.
Gustin Nash's screenplay is hardly subtle in its criticism of the medication of teens. Though it takes a humorous look at the subject, such as seeing Charlie going into business with the school bully/drug dealer to sell kids Ritalin during a high school rave, the film is defiant in its stance on the topic. Charlie himself is seen to be responsible for the near death of a classmate who, having been prescribed tablets by Charlie to help deal with panic attacks, overdoses due to deeper issues that have gone unnoticed by everyone at the school. It is the film's handling of this issue that not only adds depth, but makes it almost vital viewing, offering a sobering reflection on our times, where quick fixes are sought rather than dealing with problems head on.
Poll could hardly have asked for a better cast for his debut feature. Though only blessed with a handful of recognizable faces, each actor fully inhabits their role, creating characters that are likeable, believable, and, in nearly all cases, a little broken. Anton Yelchin, as Charlie, is a revelation. The illegitimate offspring of Ferris Bueller and Rushmore's Max Fischer, Yelchin delivers a performance that is infectious. Robert Downey Jr. continues his recent excellent run as the school's principal. Downey Jr. plays the role in such a way that, rather than have us see him as the ball-busting nemesis of Charlie, we see him as a human being, understanding of Charlie's actions (perhaps even admiring him) but forced to act, due to the pressures put on him by the school's superintendent. There's also an undeniable bravery on display in Downey Jr's. performance in scenes that reveal Principal Gardner to be an alcoholic, often resorting to extreme behavior. Kat Dennings combines brilliantly with Yelchin, the two producing a likeable and believable couple. Even more impressively, her interactions with Downey Jr. reveal a natural talent that is never overwhelmed by the higher profile actor's presence.
The disc's widescreen transfer is a little underwhelming. Never particularly horrible, containing a bright image with good color reproduction, it lacks fine detail and suffers frequently from artifacting. The audio is more impressive, though it very rarely offers the chance to push your sound system due to an emphasis on dialogue heavy scenes. However, when the opportunity arises, such as Spiral Beach's performance, the soundtrack provides plenty of kick.
The screener disc received for this review didn't contain the full complement of special features to be found on the retail version. A commentary and music video are all that were available. It appears the DVD will contain the full-screen version on one side, and the widescreen version on the other; with special features split between the two. Thus, giving a score for the special features is not possible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately for Charlie Bartlett, the films that it will draw most comparisons, too, also dwarf it somewhat. Lacking the all-out comedy of Ferris Bueller's Day Off or the smarts and eccentricity of Rushmore, Charlie Bartlett is revealed as a very good film that, thanks to its illustrious peers, cannot quite be considered great.
Going back to a point made at the start of this review, there is a feeling that the film never quite reaches its potential, leaving you wanting more. This seems to stem from the film's attempt to successfully blend comedy with more serious matters, with a slight lack of balance being the outcome. The result is a film that is unquestionably entertaining but perhaps tries a little too hard to please everyone and cover all bases, meaning it never goes quite deep enough.
The more cynical viewer and those who watch movies simply to pull them apart will likely find plenty to dislike in Charlie Bartlett; it wears its heart on its sleeve, leaving itself open to attack. But this film wasn't made for people like that. It was made for people who want to be entertained when they watch a movie, people who want characters they like with a feel-good ending, despite going to some fairly dark places on the way. Sure it's occasionally cheesy, perhaps a little hackneyed, and sometimes lacking real direction. But this is a film that has an undeniable beauty and plenty of heart that massively outweighs these failings.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Jon Poll and Writer Gustin Nash
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