February 20, 2008

Charlie Bartlett

Talk about toilet humor...

Grade: C –
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey, Jr., Hope Davis, and Kate Dennings
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

If only Charlie Bartlett were as whip-smart as it clearly believes itself to be, it might have turned out a witty slice-of-life instead of contrived, coming-of-age crud. It bears the narcissism of the Sundance scriptwriting mill plus an anti-mental health therapy message that might as well been ghostwritten by the Church of Scientology. Toss in an eccentric, boozy mom (Hope Davis, rarely worse) and a host of high school misfits, and you have an unwieldy ménage à trois of Running With Scissors, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Rushmore. And, just like any porno, this flick gets boring really fast.

Charlie’s (Anton Yelchin) revolving-door preparatory school enrollment lands him at West Summit High School, where Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.) rules with a laissez faire ineptness fueled by burnout and a liquor bottle. Charlie’s nerdy facade lands him alone in the lunchroom and his head being shoved into the restroom toilet. His schoolyard cred skyrockets, however, when he sheds his tie-and-jacket and sets up a makeshift psychiatry office in the boys bathroom, dispensing psychotropic medications he grifts from his own menagerie of clueless therapists by faking symptoms of assorted depressive disorders.

Charlie’s unexplained ensuing popularity elevates him to the status of campus powerbroker, posing a challenge to Gardner’s already-fragile authority that is further undercut when Charlie starts romancing the principal’s teenage daughter, Susan (Kate Dennings). Along the way, Charlie employs the class bully (Tyler Hilton) as his pusher and his handicapped, short-bus seatmate (Dylan Taylor) as his personal heavy.

Beyond the disjointed narrative – which at one point preoccupies itself with a protest against the sensible nstallation of security cameras in surely the most opulent high school student lounge ever constructed – the fundamental flaw in Charlie Bartlett is the sheer loathsomeness of its protagonist, whose petulance and haughtiness catapults him, however improbably, to head of an ad hoc student junta that alienates both the school hierarchy and, more significantly, the audience.

The tone of the film feels constantly off-kilter, bouncing from bathroom stall confessionals to Charlie’s annoying piano jam sessions with his mom to a teenage rave so artificial it belongs in an episode of One Tree Hill. There are trips to visit Charlie’s imprisoned dad we never see and Gardner wiling away his weekends playing with a remote-control toy boat in his swimming pool. Lurking deep within Gustin Nash’s screenplay, I suppose, is some whisper about teenage alienation and the growing reliance on antidepressants as both a babysitter and panacea for restless youth. That all well and good, but hardly new ground, particularly when presented in such a self-important package. In the end, all we learn is that a duplicitous patient trying to scarf drugs can make any doctor look like a quack, plus the realization that if the youth of today are anything like Charlie Bartlett, it is enough to make anyone depressed. Pass the Zoloft, please.

Neil Morris

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