Charlie Bartlett (R)
3 stars out of 4
It's awfully hard to do something new within the teen-angst genre, a point rookie director Jon Poll and his screenwriter Gustin Nash fully acknowledge. "Charlie Bartlett" contains elements of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Rushmore," "Heathers" and "Pump up the Volume," and many have already found it unoriginal and derivative, which it is in spots. But it's also clever, devilishly charming, surprisingly moving and brimming with laconic wit and scathing satire.
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is the only son of very wealthy parents who has been kicked out of a number of snooty New England private schools. Although his most recent infraction - manufacturing and selling high-grade fake IDs - is serious bad behavior, his mother Marilyn (Hope Davis) is impressed with his craftsmanship and enterprising spirit. Marilyn is not playing with a full deck and is essentially the child to Charlie's parent.
With no private schools left, Charlie enrolls at the local public school, which turns out to be a major eye-opener. Wearing his old school's blazer and sporting an attaché, he becomes an instant target of ridicule, particularly from the reigning bully Murphy (Tyler Hilton). After a beating at the hands of Murphy, Marilyn is sure Charlie is ready for a shrink and sends him off to one her many psychiatrists who, without much forethought, puts him on Ritalin.
Realizing his next great scam, Charlie partners with Murphy and begins dispensing a wide assortment of prescription meds to most of the student body. His popularity skyrockets, and he starts dating Susan (Kate Dennings, a sort of Goth version of Hilary Duff), the daughter of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr., going way against type). Already bummed out with his thankless job and broken marriage, the alcoholic Gardner recognizes Charlie's potential influence to both his daughter and the school and for the most part, overreacts.
A great many people will watch the movie and think it condones teen drug abuse, which is completely understandable. Initially, there's no fallout for Charlie or his customers, but Nash turns the tables on this and other serious issues when we least expect it. Free speech, alienation and the loss of a parent are also addressed in a compelling, thoughtful and most anti-teen movie way. There is also no awkward back-and-forth shift between the comedic and dramatic tones. The movie isn't preachy, but it does contain clear moral and ethical commentary. It's very funny, but most of the laughs don't come from sight gags or jokes but more from the recognition of the viewer's own experiences.
"Charlie Bartlett" is one of those rare films that wants it both ways and actually gets its wish. It's hard to balance comedy and drama this seamlessly without faltering. In wrapping up all the plot points at the end, the filmmakers do stray into a bit of forced sentimentality and it unfortunately takes the sharp edge off of a yet another pleasant winter 2008 surprise.
"Charlie Bartlett" is part of what is easily the best winter roster of movies Hollywood has offered up in two decades. (MGM/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment)