Somewhere inside Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett there’s a great picture trying to get out. Unfortunately, that never quite happens. What we’re left with is a good movie—sometimes a very good movie—that occasionally frustrates because you can see what it might have been. Part of the problem is that editor-turned-director Jon Poll and first-time writer Gustin Nash wear their influences a little too much on their sleeves. The specters of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) clearly hover over Charlie Bartlett. (Others have added John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Alan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume (1990) to the mix, and while I’ve seen both, neither stuck with me sufficiently to have spotted the influences here.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with borrowing—art doesn’t exist in a vacuum—but you always run the risk of conjuring up a work superior to your own. (Part way through Charlie Barlett, my co-reviewer, Justin Souther, remarked that it made him want to watch Rushmore.) The Rushmore influence is occasionally so apparent that it feels like a rip-off.
The film’s on better footing with Harold and Maude, which is deliberately and clearly evoked by way of homage, even working that film’s anthemic Cat Stevens song (not performed by Stevens here), “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” into the context of the story. In fact, the Harold and Maude connection almost becomes a plus, since Charlie Bartlett can be read as a Harold and Maude for the Ritalin generation. The only problem is Charlie Bartlett lacks the broader—and much more subversive—range of Harold and Maude, functioning instead on a more insular level. (That perhaps says more about the difference between 1971 and 2008 than anything else.)
All that being said, Charlie Bartlett is an affable film with a lot going for it—not the least of which are the performances of its stars: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings and Tyler Hilton. Indeed, there’s not a bad performance in the film—a not inconsiderable achievement for a first-time director.
The story begins with Charlie (Yelchin, Alpha Dog) being kicked out of the last in a long line of posh private schools—this time for making fake IDs. His slightly ditsy, definitely drug-addled mother (Davis) mildly defends him (“You’ve got to admit they look pretty authentic”), and tries to buy off the school with an endowment. Ultimately, she gets nowhere, and opts to slap him into public school. As might be expected, this creates a culture-shock problem. The overdressed Charlie quickly becomes a figure of derision, especially for the school bully, Murphey (Hilton, Walk the Line), who delights in shoving his head in a toilet and beating him up. (It strains credulity that Charlie is smart enough to know that showing up in a chauffeur-driven Benz is a bad idea, but doesn’t realize that sporting a necktie and private-school blazer complete with coat of arms is an equally ill-advised move.)
Things change when Charlie is prescribed Ritalin and accidentally discovers its potential for a high, whereupon he goes into the drug business with Murphey (the chance at money overrides Murphey’s dislike of Charlie). Charlie then sets himself up as a very unauthorized school psychiatrist—using bathroom stalls as makeshift confessionals (a nice swipe at psychiatry as a kind of religion). The trick is that Charlie’s actually a pretty good shrink (certainly better than the professionals he visits), and dutifully prescribes the right meds for his clients, which he obtains by visiting various psychiatrists and describing the proper symptoms. This affords him instant popularity, but not terribly surprising complications follow—along with a pleasing, believable romance between Charlie and semi-Goth girl Susan Gardner (Dennings, Big Momma’s House 2), who just happens to be the daughter of his quasi-nemesis, the alcoholic Principal Gardner (Downey).
A good deal of what ensues is relatively predictable, but clever characterizations and sharp dialogue make it feel a lot fresher than it is. And when all else fails, the performances carry the film along nicely. It’s certainly one of the brighter spots on the current moviegoing scene. Unfortunately, it has already been written off by the studio (who never really promoted it in the first place) as a failure (it came in at number 14—just barely squeezed out of the 13th spot by Witless Protection), meaning it’s not going to be around long. See it soon. Rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity.