- Rated R
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All photos © MGM
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
e critics like to make a big fuss over films that have had their release dates pushed back – usually because it’s a sign of a studio’s lack of confidence in the final product – but every once in a while, there’s a movie that endures a similar treatment for very different reasons. Last year, “Charlie Bartlett” was pulled from the calendar mere weeks before its scheduled date, and understandably so. The movie’s a hard sell, but all that waiting looks to have finally paid off thanks to the recent success of the like-minded “Juno.” Sure, it’s a little shady of MGM to be cashing in on Junomania now, but there's no better time than the present to release what is easily one of the biggest surprise films of the year.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) may not be pregnant, but he still has a common case of teen angst (Ritalin not included). After being kicked out of every private school in the region (the latest because he was manufacturing fake IDs), Charlie’s mom (Hope Davis) has no other choice but to enlist him in the local high school. Eager to gain the attention of his new classmates, Charlie appoints himself to the role of school psychiatrist, doling out advice and prescription drugs from within the boy’s restroom. Along with new girlfriend Susan (Kat Dennings) and class bully turned business partner Murphey (Tyler Hilton), Charlie quickly becomes the talk of the town. But when the school’s principal (Robert Downey Jr.) finds his authority threatened by Charlie's arrival, he sets out to make an example of the surefire teen.
Director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash must be fans of the snarky teen comedy genre, because “Charlie Bartlett” has been clearly influenced by cult classics like “Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume.” It’s the same “school is boring, speak out for your rights” shtick that we’ve heard a dozen times before, but Nash presents the material in a way that doesn’t feel quite as stale as it probably should. In fact, without the film’s many great performances to keep the story grounded, it’s very likely that “Charlie Bartlett” would have suffered a completely different fate.
Anton Yelchin, in particular, knocks his performance out of the park. Smart, glib and perhaps a little too mature for his own good, Charlie is like the cinematic lovechild of Juno MacGuff and Max Fischer. It’s actually quite interesting to make such a connection, since Yelchin’s onscreen relationship with Robert Downey Jr. isn’t unlike the one between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray in “Rushmore.” Both teens are incredibly advanced for their age, while their older counterparts are just beginning to cope with what that maturity brings. They’re also the subjects of a power struggle for the same woman. In the case of “Rushmore,” it’s over a teacher they both fancy, but in “Charlie Bartlett,” it’s Susan – Charlie’s girlfriend and the principal’s daughter. As such, Downey Jr. is given plenty to work with (namely in the dichotomy of his dual role as father/principal), and he’s nothing short of amazing.
The rest of the cast is equally entertaining. Hope Davis scores several laughs as Charlie’s coddling mother, while the Mohawk-haired Tyler Hilton brings an interesting dynamic to the usually stereotypical role of the class bully. Of course, the film isn’t without its faults. The way in which Charlie procures the necessary drugs (by visiting various psychiatrists and faking specific indicators) is a bit ridiculous, while Yelchin’s proclivity to overact might turn off some. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons, and although “Charlie Bartlett” might not be the next “Juno,” it has the charm and savvy to warrant serious consideration as a cult classic in the making.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
“Charlie Bartlett” might not have received a very warm reception in theaters, but that doesn’t mean MGM couldn’t have done a better job with its DVD release. With the exception of two mediocre audio commentaries (one with director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash, and the other with stars Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings), there’s really nothing else of any substance. Sure, a throwaway featurette titled “Restroom Confessional” and a music video for Spiral Beach’s “Voodoo” round out the single-disc effort, but they 're not exactly worthy of your time or energy.