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02.20.08

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Photograph by Kim Woroner
Keys to mom's heart: Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) spends quality time with his mother (Hope Davis) in 'Charlie Bartlett.

Salinger's Day Off

'Charlie Bartlett' proves you can never be too rich or too derivative.

By Richard von Busack


The smell, as opposed to the buzz, is that someone thought the odd-fit comedy Charlie Bartlett was a new Juno, and that's why it's been sprung from its significant time in the can. It was steadily advertised all last summer, with the cast seen marveling at the scandalous deeds of Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin). He's supposed to be as sensitive as Holden Caulfield and as enterprising as Ferris Bueller; his wide guileless eyes make Elijah Wood's look beady. Charlie Bartlett's name may have been branded on you good and proper during the previews, but the film's hero is caught hopelessly between self-aggrandizement and altruism. You'd have to be the next big star to knit all these conflicting traits together. Yelchin isn't all that--he tries to be--but it's probably a tribute to his talent that you don't want to kill Charlie Bartlett outright.

Seventeen-year-old Charlie has just been kicked out of prep school for running a fake-ID racket. His distracted, none-too-sober mother (Hope Davis) places her son in a public school. Bartlett arrives via short bus, still wearing the crested blue blazer of his private school. He's scooped up and given a face-down plunge in the men's room toilet by Murphey the mohawked bully (played by Tyler Hilton of One Tree Hill). Sent to a psychiatrist after the incident, Charlie is prescribed Ritalin; the drug sets him off into an ecstatic frenzy, and the police bring him in after snagging him running around in his underwear.

The pharmaceuticals give him an idea for a way to make friends. He begins dealing black-market meds to heal the troubled students around him. It becomes his job, running a clinic out of a bathroom stall; meanwhile, Charlie gets involved in the high school theater department, the province of the principal's daughter Susan (Kat Dennings).

The principal is played by Robert Downey Jr. Downey is brilliant, of course, but he's on a way, way different wavelength than this movie. He gets to play it drunk, which is a plus for any actor. He's hitting the bottle because he's been unhappily kicked upstairs from his dream job as a history teacher. And he's bullyragged mercilessly by his superintendent, in the same way Principal Skinner gets it from Superintendent Chalmers on The Simpsons.

The principal is forced to crack down on the school; the insurance companies require him to install cameras in a lounge, and he also tries to censor a supposedly controversial play. This gives the students a cause to rise up. But as Charlie becomes a bigger name at the school, he becomes more incautious.

Taking issues with this film's points is useless, since it has so many. It's trying to be all things to all audiences, and it tries to achieve this by compacting every teen script you can imagine.

Downey ably subs for the middle-aged bitterness of Bill Murray in Rushmore; that Wes Anderson film is another rock in this film's veritable avalanche of touchstones. And Dennings isn't bad; she's a tougher, different kind of love object, a bigger, darker girl than the leading boy usually falls for. Then again, when a movie has someone like Yelchin's Charlie Bartlett as the hero, someone in the film has to be macho. Denning perseveres with girlish confidence; even if she's clearly too old to be a high school student, she makes herself look younger by showing a kid's faith in too-bright lipstick. She has a look but not a character. The writing is so off in Gustin Nash's script that Susan doesn't even react too much when her boyfriend and her father get into a terrible argument.

Touching on some hot-button topics--teen suicide, pharmaceutical drugs, drunken or helicopterish parents--Charlie Bartlett resolves everything with a warm-hearted blandness that would have made even Judy Blume or John Hughes flinch. The dull, soft, televisionistic visuals don't liven this picture up, and it's clearly an older person's view of teenage rebellion. It shows its preference for after-school-special territory after the jig is up; Charlie is rather relieved that he's been grounded, because it's showing that his mother really does care about him. Has any 17-year-old--outside the boundaries of an after-school special, of course--ever had such gratitude?


Movie Times CHARLIE BARTLETT (R; 97 min.), directed by Jon Poll, written by Gustin Nash, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr. and Hope Davis, and opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.


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