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Charlie Bartlett
Overall Rating
4.5Overall Score

Charlie Bartlett Review CoverUnited States, 2008
Directed By: John Poll
Written By: Gustin Nash
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Kat Dennings, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity

 

 

 

 

Movie Review

This review was originally posted February 22nd, 2008.

High school comedies usually fall into one of two categories. Either they take themselves seriously and attempt to really capture the feel of high school (like Mean Girls, or—Oscar plug!—Juno); or they throw realism completely to the wind and simply appeal to the base fantasies of teenagers (American Pie, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Charlie Bartlett is the rare film that manages to run the gamut between these two—and it succeeds with flying colors. It’s borrowed a fair amount of its material from earlier teen pictures, but watching it really is an experience unto itself.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably think the plot goes like this: Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), an affluent but precocious teen, gets kicked out of a prep school—yet again—and sent to public school. At first (since this is the case in all high school comedies that feature male leads) he is unable to fit in, and gets picked on to no end. However, he soon realizes that being a rich kid has its advantages—for instance, a steady supply of psychiatrists that will prescribe drugs which his mother (Hope Davis) will pay for, and which he can then sell to the other kids. He sets up a psychiatrist’s office in the restroom, and listens to students talk about their problems, and then sells them prescription drugs—and thus climbs his way to the top of the social totem pole.

This really isn’t what the film is about, though. It uses this plot as a starting point—a sort of hook designed to lure the audience in. About halfway through, the tone of the film begins to change. Director Jon Poll (previously known for editing such brain-dead comedies asDunston Checks In and Scary Movie 3) begins to humanize his characters, giving them real emotions, real histories, and real conflicts. The plot takes twist after twist, until it builds to a climax that’s both logical and completely unexpected.

This, then, is really sort of a third type of high school comedy—or, if you prefer, a hybrid of the two, where the situations are decidedly far-fetched and outlandish, but the characters are completely real, and wholly sympathetic. The humor isn’t the sort of cheap pop-culture references and sex jokes we’ve come to expect from comedies of late—it comes naturally from the characters reacting to the situations in which they find themselves. I suppose it’s what often gets called a “serious comedy”—the best comparison I can make is probably Paul Weitz’s In Good Company (ironically enough, given that Weitz also directed American Pie)—although there are hints of Woody Allen as well.

Watching Charlie butt heads with the eternally frustrated principal (a brilliantly nuanced Robert Downey Jr.) may remind some of Ferris Bueller—this, however, is more incidental than anything. In Bueller, the focus was on the schadenfreude of watching Ferris stick it to the decidedly hateable Man; here, the two men are really fighting their own demons—angry at themselves for their failings, and tragically taking it out on each other. This sort of conflict is infinitely harder to do—particularly in this genre—than Jon Hughes’ one-sided relationship inBueller, and Poll actually pulls it off. This is a struggle that could have gone in more than two ways, and the final confrontation had me on the edge of my seat.

Charlie Bartlett isn’t perfect. Hope Davis (The Hoax, About Schmidt) is almost unbearably one-sided as Charlie’s mom (I can see what she’s going for here—but it doesn’t really work, and it’s a performance that pales in comparison to pretty much everyone else in the film), and some of the plot points are far too overdone to be forgiven (making Charlie’s love interest the principal’s daughter, for instance). What’s good here, though, is really good. This is the directorial debut for Poll, and also the screenwriting debut for writer Gustin Nash—and I honestly can’t wait to see what they do next.

Movie Trailer

 

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