It’s one of the great tricks of cinema to make you give a damn about those who you’d scarcely give the time of day to. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to high school kids.
From Ferris Bueller to Napoleon Dynamite, these kids have become part of film lore, though lord knows how long it would take before you’d want to land one on them should you meet them in real life. Can we add Charlie Bartlett to that list?
With films like Rushmore and Saved! proving solid academic-based entertainment that works on a deeper level, smart collegiate comedies are still always welcome. It’s all the more pity then that Charlie Bartlett falls short.
Starting out by introducing Charlie as a smart rich kid with a tendency to break the law, there’s initially a wonderfully off-centre air of eccentric playfulness, as we meet his woefully inept and indulgent mother (Davis). Having been expelled from every available private school, mainstream education remains his last stop.
After the school bully introduces him to the finer art of happy slapping in the least agreeable manner, clearly marked as a dork, Charlie decides he needs to take action if he wants to be accepted. Exploiting his mum’s resident psychoanalyst, he starts peddling his ADHD medicine to curry favour. Setting up a pharmacy cum therapy club in the lavs, he finds himself an unofficial agony uncle and icon to his schoolmates.
Which obviously rubs Principal Gardner (an underutilised Downey Jr) up the wrong way, even more so when Charlie gets involved with his daughter, the obligatory love interest that shows his softer side.
Initially offering a hope of quaint subversive, the problem is that it fails to hit any real sweet spots. Yelchin is cracking, lively without grating, equally cocky and flawed, but it all flows from his performance, as the script fails to keep up with him. Keen for the eccentricity of Napoleon Dynamite and the nuance of Rushmore, as well as the brashness of Ferris Bueller, it fails in all those counts, showing only a clichéd side that isn’t helped by a muffled moralising tone.
Our hero is set-up as a tool of empowerment, only to be stripped down to a mere collection of personal problems by the end of it. The American culture of self-help and medication as a route to salvation comes under fire, but is only replaced by a simplistic message about helping your fellow man.
A comedy that fails to land any major gags, a drama that is compromised by a tendency for clichés, this gets teacher’s old red pen mark - must try harder.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis.
Directed by: Jon Poll.
Extras: Commentary, featurette, music video