Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Hope
Davis, Kat Dennings, Robert Downey Jr., Tyler Hilton
Director: Jon Poll
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 97 Minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2008
“Charlie, there are more important things than popularity.”
“Like what? Cause I'm seventeen. And right now, popularity's pretty damn important!”
“Like what you do with that popularity.”
When a movie takes familiar elements and attempts all to hard to be edgy, the results are not so good. Such is the case with Charlie Bartlett, which tries so hard to be a mix between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Rushmore. The problem is it’s nowhere near as funny or memorable as those great movies.
The main problem is that the character of Charlie Bartlett is simply forgettable, especially when compared to the likes of Ferris Bueller and Max Fischer. And yet, the movie paints him as a teenage hero for our time. I wouldn’t mind that all if the character wasn’t simultaneously uninteresting and annoying.
Anton Yelchin, who was incredibly effective as the kidnap victim in Alpha Dog and will be playing Chekov in the upcoming Star Trek movie, plays the title character. I’m won’t say that he gives the year’s worst performances, but the more Yelchin tries to bring a distinct quality to the character, the more aggravating he gets.
Then you have the screenplay, written by director Jon Poll, which aggravates even more by trying too hard to be “hipster-ish”. It made me think of Juno, a film I liked but wasn’t crazy about like most people. Some of the hipster dialogue in that film somewhat annoyed me, but now that I’ve seen Charlie Bartlett I like it a hell of a lot more. Plus, it had the bright and shining Ellen Page…need I say more?
The film opens with Charlie being suspended from his school after he is caught running a card laminating scam. Where as most parents would be downright infuriated with this news, Charlie’s mom (Hope Davis) couldn’t care less. In fact, she’s eager to enroll him in public school right away, since he’s scammed just about every private school there is. Before long, Charlie begins attending Western Summit High.
Further demonstrating that the movie is robbed of any surprises, the preppie Charlie is pushed around by the school bully (Tyler Hilton), and hits it off with a beautiful and rebellious girl named Susan (Kat Dennings), who happens to be the daughter of the school’s principal, Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.). I wonder if he is going to disapprove.
But Charlie begins to fit in well with the student body when he takes it upon himself to become a self-appointed psychiatrist. What inspires him to do this? Ritalin, which was prescribed to him by his own psychiatrist and what Charlie decides to sell to the students.
So…yeah, it all doesn’t really add up to much, at least anything unpredictable. Charlie and Susan get intimate, which doesn’t sit right with her principal father. Charlie becomes the cool, popular kid he wasn’t at the beginning of the movie…and everything works out.
And despite the movie wanting to be a quirky comedy, a lot of the quirky elements sort of work against it. The best example is Charlie’s relationship with his mom, which borders on ultra-weird (I don’t find it amusing that they at one point are singing the theme to All in the Family as Charlie plays piano). And all the decent areas of the film have been done in better films.
Thankfully, the irritating performance from lead actor Yelchin is overshadowed by two bright spots in the cast. The first is the radiant Kat Dennings, who you may recognize from The 40 Year Old Virgin, who brings life and personality to her part, in addition to being incredibly gorgeous. The second is, of course, Robert Downey, Jr. as the school principal, and it only disappoints that he isn’t in the movie more.
Charlie Bartlett may find its core audience, but it will be only because those who like it haven’t seen earlier gems like Rushmore, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other rebellious teen flicks. It’s not a terrible film, but it had potential to be so much better, that is if the lead character were appealing to begin with.
Once again, I’m saddled with a screener disc from MGM/Fox, so the video quality I’ve seen won’t be at the level of the quality on the disc you rent or buy. It’s not a horrendous quality, though a good bit of pixelation does figure into numerous areas of the presentation. Otherwise, the image rendering is about average.
Since this is a dialogue driven comedy, the 5.1 mix isn’t given much to work with. The songs on the soundtrack are about the only added boost the presentation can deliver. Dialogue delivery does sound quite good, as expected.
The features on this MGM release are spread out on the double-sided disc. We get two commentary tracks; the first one is with director Jon Poll and stars Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings, the second is with Poll and writer Gustin Nash. Lastly, we get a featurette titled “Restroom Confidential” and a music video for the song “Voodoo” by Spiral Beach.
I’m not against redefining a genre for a young audience, but younger generation now need better cinematic representation than Charlie Bartlett. It’s got its good spots (I think I might actually be falling for Ms. Dennings), but overall this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done in much better films of this kind.