Too Cool for School
One of my favorite teen movies is Pump Up the Volume from the 1990s. About a renegade DJ who truly connected with his small town's angsty youth, the film possessed great amounts of vigor, passion, and intelligence -- all traits one wouldn't think to find in a teen movie. Charlie Bartlett tries heading down a similar road, attempting to fit a healthy dose of classroom commentary into the frame of a comedy riding on Napoleon Dynamite's coattails. But for a film that should come with the ambition and spirit of a Heathers, Charlie Bartlett feels more like a She's All That, serving up bargain-basement morals in such a mediocre manner. The film as a whole comes across like the world's longest after-school special.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a wily high schooler with a knack for getting into trouble. After getting booted out of one private academy too many, young Charlie is forced, horror of horrors, to take his chances in public school. His spiffy manner of dress and habit of carrying a briefcase to class make him an all-too easy target for bullies, but in no time, our hero formulates a plan that will land him a one-way ticket to popularity.
After being prescribed Ritalin, Charlie decides to appoint himself the school's unofficial psychiatrist, dispensing advice and prescription drugs to a student body tired of being ignored by their complacent educators. All of a sudden, the entire school is lining up for a session with "Dr. Charlie," though the consequences of his extracurricular activities threaten to catch up with him once the principal (Robert Downey Jr.) gets wind of Charlie's on-the-side enterprise and scrambles to shut it down as soon as possible.
Remember how Enchanted almost dove into the realm of satire in its depiction of a flesh-and-blood Disney princess a couple of times, then kept scuttling back into its unexciting safety zone? Charlie Bartlett has the same sort of pattern to it. There's no doubting about at least some semblance of intelligence behind the story and that the filmmakers have an honorable message in mind. However, this is one of those movies one might mistake for being good just because it's so easy to watch. Charlie Bartlett never knows when to play its hand or how hard to play it, resulting in ill-placed attempts to say something as well as in being confused about what it wants to say. A buddy of mine put it best in pointing out how whatever conflicts arise during the plot are solved in no time, leaving virtually no room for suspense and giving the viewers little more to do than just wait for the ending credits to arrive.
Also, the script never makes up its mind about how it wants to depict Charlie. Is he a chronic troublemaker because he has nothing better to do? Does he earnestly fear not being liked? What motivates his quest to become the big man on campus? You won't find any real answers in this movie, which simply slaps Charlie with some daddy issues and thinks that's enough in terms of character background. Yelchin's performance isn't bad, and he tries livening up the part during the few opportunities where the film's sense of humor shows its bizarre side (including an impromptu performance of "Yankee Doodle Dandy"). But it's only as good as the slipshod writing allows it to be, the same proving true for the rest of the cast, from Downey's turn as a principal whose hardass reputation comes with a reason -- to Hope Davis playing Charlie's inattentive mother.
Charlie Bartlett isn't really that funny (save for a few chuckle-inducing moments), and neither is it truly inspirational. Still, although the movie is too underwhelming to recommend, it's too much of a breeze to pan completely.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by MGM and rated "R" for language, drug content and nudity.)