There are powerful reminders of older, better films in "Charlie Bartlett". It harks back to the 80s' teenage ennui and the 90s' ensuing hipster cynicism, with its hands digging deep into the Wes Anderson/John Hughes/Alexander Payne playbook and is as artificially constructed as the temporary highs its adolescents gets from prescription panaceas. Fresh and quirky is the promise that fails to deliver in Jon Poll's derivative directorial debut, a snarky and marginally clever film that already seems to be a legend in its own mind.
It's all about the tone when it comes to a film that unevenly straddles the lines between an incisive teen comedy on contemporary mores and social critiques or whether it starts to extend a warm-hearted humanism that glibly presents itself as group therapy for a culturally induced Prozac Nation. Preppy Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), the titular attention-seeking mandarin, an obnoxious blowhard by way of Holden Caulfield who repugnantly deals in ironic rejoinders and self-conscious quips is oddly, our protaganist. It looks like young Byrd Huffstod's grown up to be a bit of a self-satisfied prick.
Yelchin has always been an immensely likable actor, whose strength has always traditionally belonged in his unassuming, wide-eyed view of the world, delivered with soft-spoken optimism and an underlying kindness. But in "Charlie Bartlett", Yelchin becomes the smarmy anti-thesis of what sustains his charms, and while not begrudging his change of direction, the dissonance here is staggering.
Charlie, or Dr. Charlie as he becomes known in the hallways of his new public school after being kicked out of yet another private institution, the prestigious Castlewood School, is a budding entrepreneur butting heads with his nemesis, Principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) for influence over the school's student body and in particular, the sunshiny Goth chick Susan (Kat Dennings) who happens to be the Principal's daughter. Charlie sets up stall, literally, in the boy's bathroom and starts to dole out advice and more importantly, selling prescription poppers (Ritalin, Xanax, Zoloft etc.) to harried teenagers and disconnected kids. Poll's enthrallment with the baby-faced Charlie's superiority complex enters dangerously reckless and self-involved terrain - he implicitly posits that the mini-Doc isn't doing something any more wrong that what drug-enabling medical businesses around the country are already doing when Charlie hoards his stash by feigning symptoms to various psychiatrists who are only too glad to ply him with more drugs. By prioritising its social commentary before the actions of Charlie, Poll betrays his story and his characters quite conclusively.
Is "Charlie Bartlett" just too cool for the room? All signs point to yes, for the most part. The film's perverse, albeit cheap thrill of the blind leading the blind, and its inherently inhuman condescension of dysfunction goes the way of smug caricature. But despite the disingenuous diversions that pockmark the film, there's a certain, palpable level of cheeky joy that film revels in. There's not so much outrage in the film as there is misplaced wit and sympathy that the film enjoys from its veteran casting of an acerbic Downey and a unstable Hope Davis as Charlie's boozehound mother that treats him just too much like an adult for their own good. It's this centre of humility in the film that keeps it from going too far into the deep end of a cesspool of derisive histrionics of self-obsessed privileged lifestyles, and reminds us that underneath all the blue blazer and cocksure swagger is a lonely, poor little rich boy yearning for adult and peer validation alike.