If Ferris Bueller came along today, he might appear an awful lot like Charlie Bartlett. Smart, headstrong and just a bit mischievous, the title character in this 2007 film shares Bueller’s charm and ability to lead. What separates the two is a generation. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off featured a burned out Cameron (Alan Ruck) who needed to crash his daddy’s car to come to grips with his emotional pain.
In Charlie Bartlett, the students need drugs, hard drugs, to get them through another day. And Charlie’s just the young entrepreneur to provide them.
Anton Yelchin is Charlie, a rich kid who just got booted from his umpteenth private school. So his devoted but clueless mom (Hope Davis) plops Charlie in public school where he quickly is beaten senseless by the school thug.
Rather than hire a bigger, meaner bodyguard — or even a Drillbit Taylor type — Charlie handles the problem with his impressive business savvy. He enlists the thug to help him sell Prozac and other prescription goodies to their fellow students. Charlie is already getting a steady stream of drugs from his team of psychotherapists, and it’s a snap to dream up new neuroses while on the couch to get just about any modern drug he could ever need.
Suddenly, the school bathroom is part confessional, part drug clinic. It’s not about the money. Charlie wants to belong, and as a therapist-drug dealer everyone knows his name.
He also gets the attention of Susan (Kat Dennings), the lovely daughter of the school’s alcoholic principal, Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.). The latter is criminally underused for much of the film, but a third act breakdown gives Downey, Jr. some room to roam.
The teen angst explored by John Hughes in his iconic ’80s hits seems downright quaint compared to what Charlie and the gang must juggle. These kids are in serious pain, and they seek out Charlie as a life saver. It’s a tragic sign of our times, and had the film been funnier, darker, or simply more engaging, it could have mirrored our culture’s flaws.
Charlie Bartlett doesn’t fit into any existing teen template. The laughs are few and hard earned, and Charlie himself isn’t the crowd-pleasing type. You won’t see him atop a parade float or dancing with a trio of hotties. He’s hard to love and even harder to get to know. Young Yelchin nicely portrays that ambivalence, but when it’s time to address a crowd of admirers or put the moves on Dennings’ character, his lack of blinding charisma becomes far too apparent. An actor needs some raw magnetism to pull off a hero as outsized and complex as Charlie, and he simply misses the mark.
Still, Yelchin offers a slew of smaller pleasures via his performance, including the sly way he massages the school bully’s ego, and need for fast cash, until he becomes a reluctant ally.
Downey, Jr. has the trickiest role, the authority figure that could use a therapist himself. Maybe two. His tragic arc mirrors his real-life struggles so closely it can be uncomfortable to watch. But rarely has the actor looked so unblemished by his personal demons, a reminder of why he captured the public’s imagination in the first place.
The supporting cast members, most high school types we’ve seen before, bring a credible sense of suffering to the proceedings. Anyone with fond memories of high school might reconsider them after even a casual viewing.
MGM didn’t exactly know how to promote Charlie Bartlett, and after seeing the film it’s easy to understand their plight. It’s a teen comedy without many laughs, a social satire that cuts so deep it leaves viewers squirming. It’s a movie that defies easy packaging, a problem that should be helped by its DVD and eventual cable release.
Its ambition alone demands some level of attention, even if viewers greet the film with limited expectations.
The DVD comes with precious few extras. We’re treated to a music video of “Voodoo” by Spiral Beach and a commentary track featuring the film’s star, director and co-star Dennings. To say their running dialogue sounds inane is to be kind, but the stars and director do keep up the chatter. At least they’re entertained by it all.