Good Time Charlie
Makes for Bad Time Viewing
Swayed by the selective media hype that compared it to Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Rushmore (two bonafide classics), I went to the Maryland Film Festival's free screening of Charlie Bartlett last night at the Charles Theatre. All I can say is, thank God it was free, because the aforementioned comparisons contain more hubris than the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For me it was like high school teen film stew, a mix of every cliche and paper-thin characterization taken from every high school film ever made but without any of the wit, charm or insight. (John Hughes and Wes Anderson, where are you when we need you?) Plus it veered between comedy and tragedy, never establishing a consistent tone or vision. In other words, it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Everyone makes a big deal about this film's "heavy message" about prescription drug misuse and psychiatrist quackery; excuse me but didn't Running with Scissors already explore this turf last year? And the whole shrink-confessional-pharmacy setup in the men's room reminded me of a secondary plot in Rock 'n' Roll High School involving the efforts of the men's-bathroom-stationed matchmaker Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) to arrange a date for high-school jock Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), not to mention all the pharmaceudical commerce that took place in the bathroom in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Anyway, I was obviously in the minority in the audience, but I was glad to find this review by Jason Clark in Slant magazine that says it better than I ever could.
by Jason Clark
Posted: May 23, 2007
If Rushmore's Max Fischer were transplanted to John Hughes's Shermer, IL high school backdrop and neither Wes Anderson nor Hughes's bruising observations or inimitable humor were apparent, the result would look like Jon Poll's feeble entry into the teen-movie lexicon. Similar in character to the aforementioned film, Charlie Bartlett concerns a too-bright-for-his-own-good wisenheimer (Anton Yelchin, more irritating than charming) who becomes a de facto shrink after getting kicked out of his elite prep school after creating fake IDs. He is then forced to go to a public school that features an acerbic principal (Robert Downey Jr., running his eye-rolling, ironic shtick right into the ground) with a cutie-pie daughter (Kat Dennings), the prettiest male bully you'll ever meet (the CW-ready Tyler Hilton), and a surprising dearth of wide-ranging ethnicity in the classrooms.
By that set-up, one can immediately judge where it's going: Charlie will face off with the principal over his offspring, have to face the bully, and confront Mom (Hope Davis) about her pill-popping ways while past issues are dredged up (why is Charlie so secretive about his long-lost dad?). But there's no freshness to any of this; it's as if director Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash watched Rushmore on a loop and tried to make it palatable to the mall crowd. But what set that film apart was its understanding that Max was supposed to be annoying and bratty at times, and here, especially as played by an over-antic Yelchin, you want to get out of the same room at times. It's as if Ferris Bueller drank too much Red Bull and never had a day off.
One could commend the movie by standing by its R-rating (you even see a few breasts here, which must be a first in years for a teen picture). But it only points to how ultimately safe much of it is, even when Downey's character ends up waving a pistol around young Charlie in a drunken rage (a terrible plot point very clumsily set up earlier in the film), and, ahem, near a pool? There's your difference right there: Rushmore only needed Bill Murray throwing golf balls into a pool, cigarette dangling from his lips, and an ill-fitting pair of swim trunks to convey the entire world of a middle-aged dad in quiet crisis. This movie needs gunfire and histrionics.