Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ultimately Average, Charlie Bartlett Stumbles In The Middle.

The Good: Interesting characters, Decent acting
The Bad: Predictable plot/character elements, Story unravels in the middle
The Basics: Smart but rather unfortunately plotted in the middle, Charlie Bartlett is good, but not truly great.

Did you ever watch a gymnastics or ice skating event on television (or in person) and begin the experience of watching one athlete perform completely entranced and rooting for them, only to watch as their routine fell apart in the middle? And then, if you're like me, you might stick it out, unsure if you're rooting for the performer to fail utterly or pull it out and see how the judges finally rate the overall. In the case of Charlie Bartlett, the first film to my knowledge that I have seen by writer Gustin Nash and director Jon Poll initially impressed me, despite having so many similarities to other coming-of-age dramedies of late, most notably Across The Universe (reviewed here!).

Sadly, as I sit contemplating Charlie Bartlett, my overwhelming sensation is one of mild to moderate disappointment. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the film - largely, I did - but rather for the beginning the movie had and the complexity it seemed to have in terms of character depth and concept, when the movie unraveled, it never quite recovered from that.

Charlie Bartlett is a young man in high school who has been kicked out of virtually every private school in Connecticut. He is desperate to be popular, but is clearly an outsider, starting his first day in public school wearing a suit and tie. Mugged by the local punk, Murphy, and ogled by the principal's daughter, Susan, Charlie looks to both fit in and change the student body.

Allying with the thug who beat him up by having the punk sell off his Ritalin to fellow students, Charlie Bartlett soon becomes the de facto psychiatrist for his fellow students. Soon, though, Principal Gardner notices and he notices how troublemaker Charlie is sniffing around his daughter. When the superintendent compels Gardner to put up video cameras in the Senior lounge, the students rebel and look to Charlie to lead them.

First, I'm shocked that this movie is rated R. I've never been much of a fan of the MPAA, but how director Jon Poll sat and took an "R" for this movie baffles me. There is nothing so explicit as to be bothersome to audiences younger than eighteen, but that could just be the liberal in me talking.

Second, Charlie Bartlett starts out wonderfully. This was a film I picked up because I saw previews before another DVD I was watching, so the trailers were fairly effective. But in its execution, the film slowly goes away from its original quirky brilliance and into somewhere nowhere near as inventive or even interesting. In its opening sequences, Charlie Bartlett is layered and subtle, its characterizations are interesting, even the cliche ones.

So, for example, the punk is obvious - whatwith his mohawk - but how quickly he and Charlie develop a business partnership makes the viewer forget the swirly he gives Charlie. Similarly, from her first appearance, Susan Gardner is obviously Charlie's love interest at the public school and yet there is something fiercely unique in Susan. While she is typically teenager-ish to her father, with Charlie, she is his esoteric equal, calling him by his full name at each of their meetings.

Moreover, Charlie Bartlett is clearly an outsider's fantasy, from the opening sequence where Charlie envisions himself as a sort of rock star before his class. Even more clever is how he uses the punk's videos of all of the people he has beaten up - including Charlie - to create a DVD to sell to help Murphy make restitution to his victims.

Actually, that's an excellent place to explore where the film begins to diverge from its interesting and unique course into a somewhat banal "kids fight the powers" story. One of Murphy's victims, Kip, is clearly in need of serious psychological help. Charlie, who is painted as being a reluctant outsider listens to Kip and he seems to empathize with Kip quite a bit. Yet, when it comes to Murphy giving Kip money from the DVD sales, Charlie isn't as insistent as one might expect and Kip only gets about $20 from Murphy. But when Charlie fails to follow-through with Kip and actually befriend him better, the movie takes a right turn into Sucksville and it picks up the pace.

It is at this point that the student body's tensions over the cameras reaches a boil and for some reason Charlie becomes an idiot. Caught by Principal Gardner for selling the DVDs, Charlie fails to see that he has done anything wrong. I can dig that; I don't think he did anything wrong either. The problem is, Charlie doesn't speak up to explain what it was he was doing. For such a vocal young man, that he allows himself to be suspended for three days rather than saying "I was raising money for all of the kids Murphy beat up" is baffling. It defies the logic of a young man who will call that same adult on his alcoholism.

Similarly, Charlie's friendship seems to have no real effect on Susan. Susan is able to talk to Charlie unlike how she feels she cannot talk with her father. This is established early on and unfortunately, this does not change. Susan decides to be secretive as opposed to honest, which her relationship with Charlie seems to have made her. So, here is a high school girl who has no problem with the boy who just lost his virginity to her shouting it out to pretty much the entire student body, but she won't tell her father that she has picked up some nicotine gum so she can quit smoking . . . It seems unnecessarily juvenile in its construction to me.

That said, this film is largely better than the majority of teen coming-of-age movies out there. It has genuine character in its protagonist and some truly impressive performances throughout. Hope Davis is definitely under credited as Charlie's mother. She plays the relationship perfectly, eyeing Charlie more like a husband than a son, which suits her character's weird lack of boundaries. And Kat Dennings impressed me with her ability to play a mature young woman. She is clearly not simply trading on her Hollywood good looks (which she has in a very striking and understated way) to get roles. She is articulate and she holds her own in scenes with both Robert Downey Jr. and Anton Yelchin.

Robert Downey Jr. bears the brunt of my acting gripe with Charlie Bartlett. Downey is a fabulous actor, but here he is either typecast (Principal Gardner is an alcoholic) or simply used because of his prior roles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Gardner much like he played Larry on Ally McBeal. That might have been one of the best roles he ever had, but it doesn't mean he should simply reprise it for this role (and that Poll should simply use him that way!). The performance fits, but it is not one of Downey's groundbreaking roles, merely a reprisal of one of his best past performances.

With the film being his character's namesake, Anton Yelchin bears the weight of Charlie Bartlett. Yelchin does an adequate job, consistently portraying Charlie in a way that makes him interesting, if not understandable. He has presence, though he manages to let others breathe in their scenes, most notably he does not smother the performances of Dennings.

On DVD, Charlie Bartlett has pretty much the minimal and expected bonus features for a dramedy of this type. There are featurettes with minimal additional behind-the-scenes information as well as the trailers for the movie and for a few other new releases.

Charlie Bartlett is worth seeing for anyone who likes decent drama, despite the film's stumblings in the middle. For the buy, though, I'd say check it out first; it's not as wonderful as it could have been.

For other works with Anton Yelchin, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Smurfs
Terminator: Salvation
Star Trek
15 Minutes


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed, in order of movie title with links back to the actual reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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