If you happen to be rich, have access to a variety of prescription pills, and are heading to a new school where you’ll surely be unliked, what should you do? If you’re the hero of Charlie Bartlett, you open up a psychiatry office in the bathroom and prescribe pills to other students, thus becoming king of the school. If you’re a normal person, maybe you should try making friends the normal way. Obviously I would never condone breaking [your country here]’s laws.
Popularity is the name of the game in Charlie Bartlett. The eponymous hero (Anton Yelchin) has been kicked out of every private school in the area and is now headed to a public school run by Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.). He doesn’t initially fit in — he’s beaten by a bully, Murphy (Tyler Hilton), who later becomes his business partner – but after starting a pharmaceutical business becomes not only Mr. Popularity but also the students’ voice of rebellion. That puts him at odds with the principal. To make matters worse, he also begins dating the principal’s daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings).
So, we’ve got a film that deals with the ins and outs of high school popularity, a central conflict between the lead character and the school’s principal, a protagonist who is using his smarts and wit to hide the fact that he’s lonely inside (spoiler alert) — his father’s in prison and his mother is not exactly a fit parent — and enough humor to technically call the film a comedy, even if it leans toward the drama end of the dramedy scale more often than not. There’s our movie.
If that sounds like that’s a lot to balance in one film, it’s because it is. The film marks the directorial debut of Jon Poll, who has a great deal of experience in editing. One would expect that experience would aid him in bringing all of these elements together coherently and efficiently, but such isn’t the case. Charlie Bartlett jumps around too much and too often. It makes for a tonal deficiency, and it’s hard to get into the film’s sense of rhythm.
You might hope that its erratic nature would keep it from being predictable, but that’s not what happens. From the start of the film to the end, you’re not going to be surprised by what happens, save for perhaps the satirical digs at both the high school environment and how easy it is to acquire prescription drugs. Both of those things carry with them minor shock value, even though the plot as a whole is too easy. The ending also wraps everything up too effectively; for as messed up as everyone in the film is, an ending this neat doesn’t fit.
Perhaps the problem with the plot is that it feels as if it has been stitched together from numerous other high school movies. If a movie deals with popularity in the high school environment — and how many high school movies don’t deal with popularity, anyway? — there’s a good chance Charlie Bartlett borrows from it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the filmmakers don’t do enough to make it feel like its own thing. Apart from parts of the principal-Charlie storyline, I felt like I’d seen this movie before.
There is more to Charlie Bartlett than a lot of other high school movies. They can often be throwaway and shallow, which wouldn’t be a fitting description for this one. The protagonist is more interesting than these types of characters often are. You spend much of the film figuring out why he needs this popularity; is it a simple desire or are there underlying reasons? The supporting cast — Principal Gardner and his daughter, in particular — have their own problems and complexities.
The film doesn’t suffer from poor performances. As the smart and confident Charlie, Anton Yelchin does a great job. He could carry the film even without a strong supporting cast. Hope Davis has a mostly comedic role as his mother, and their shared scenes are a lot of fun due to the characters’ role-reversal. Robert Downey, Jr. steals each scene he’s in. The most dramatic moment comes down to him and Yelchin (along with booze and a gun), and while Yelchin holds his own the scene belongs to Downey, Jr.
While Charlie Bartlett may not be an overwhelming success, it’s smart enough to be worth a watch for those who are looking for something different from the generic high school movie. It has a good cast, deeper characters than you’d expect, and a plot that contains a lot of different elements, doesn’t do a terribly good job at bringing them together, and feels borrowed from many other different films. But its intelligence and characters elevate it above the poor entries of the genre.