CHARLIE BARTLETT (Jon Poll, 2007)
Tossed out of yet another private school, this time for making fake Connecticut driver's licenses, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is forced to enroll at the most fearsome of places: the public high school. The seventeen-year-old worries that he won't be popular with his new classmates. Sure enough, the blazer-wearing, attaché case-carrying kid is on the receiving end of a swirly and hallway beatdown courtesy of mohawked bully Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton) on his first day.
Charlie is no stranger to psychiatrists' offices, although he doesn't find the solution to his problems on their couches but in their prescriptions. Ritalin makes him manic, but it also delivers the buzz that other students are more than happy to pay for. Seeing a lucrative and popularity-building opportunity staring him in the face, Charlie forges a business arrangement with Murphey. He will fake symptoms during his therapy sessions so he can procure the drugs. Charlie will then set himself up as a bathroom stall shrink and prescribe pills that Murphey will dispense. Thus a big man on campus is made in CHARLIE BARTLETT.
Charlie attracts the attention of alcoholic Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) when his enterprise expands to selling DVDs of Murphey's assaults on schoolyard weaklings. Dating Gardner's daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) doesn't put him in the administrator's good graces either.
CHARLIE BARTLETT borrows extensively from FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF and RUSHMORE but leaves behind a key ingredient for its teenage outsider hero: likability. Charlie is a self-entitled twerp who is not the least bit sympathetic no matter how much the filmmakers want to blame his overmedicated mother (Hope Davis) and absent father for his behavior. Speaking in a pinched voice and carrying himself with unfathomable smugness, Yelchin irritates every second he's on screen. Even Gandhi would be tempted to sock this self-satisfied brat in the nose a few times.
Ferris Bueller and Max Fischer, Charlie Bartlett's cinematic forebears, may have been self-absorbed, but fundamentally they were decent kids who accepted responsibility for their youthful misdeeds. Charlie's brazen disregard for anyone's best interests but his own is bad enough. That the film nurtures those feelings only makes it worse.
Plus, Ferris and Max were ingenious, puckish rebels who believed in what they were doing. Charlie applies a market analyst's approach to his subversive acts. He doesn't necessarily believe in his corporatized, co-opted rebellion; it's just what sells.
What makes the film even more unsavory is that Charlie, whose family is obscenely rich, technically keeps his hands clean when it comes to distributing the drugs or the school fight videos. The dirty work is for his presumbly blue collar classmate. Charlie isn't the one handing the drugs to the customers or dishing out the physical abuse recorded for entertainment. He's simply profiting from it.
Least appealing is the "laugh at the retards" material, an ugly side of a film with little charity available in it except for its supposedly beleaguered protagonist. (Considering how much Charlie takes advantage of the people who come to idolize him, it's curious that he becomes their folk hero.) The humor in general is stylized cleverness that seems more amused with itself than it really is. For instance, Charlie duets with his Klonopin-zonked mom on the theme song from All in the Family because it's ironic or something.
While CHARLIE BARTLETT'S spitting in the face of authority may thrill disenchanted teens, its obnoxiousness and phoniness is enough to make me feel like an old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn. We get it. Adults suck. Now shut up, junior.