Charlie Bartlett was marketed heavily online when it was first released in February, but even with the big promotional push, it failed to recoup it’s $12 million budget. Now that it’s out on DVD, the combination of Robert Downey J. and few having seen it should make it a popular rental. My professional advice? Don’t bother.
Charlie Bartlett is a mashup of Ferris Bueller, Rushmore, and the Breakfast Club, which is less a compliment than an explanation for why almost every plot element feels like it was lifted from somewhere else. The title character, played by Anton Yelchin, is a rich kid who’s been kicked out of every private school in the county, most recently for making fake IDs. When we catch up with him, he’s trying to make a go of it at Western Summit High, where Robert Downey Jr. is the depressed, recently-divorced principal, and Kat Dennings is his daughter, the drama club president with big boobs, big teeth, and, naturally, a soft spot for dorks.
And of course, Charlie shows up to his first day of public school in a blazer and tie – either because private school kids are totally ignorant of the outside world, or because he wanted to be like Max Fisher in Rushmore. Charlie spends a few weeks as fish out of water, but when his psychiatrist puts him on Ritalin, his career as the unofficial school psychiatrist begins. All he has to do is listen to kids’ symptoms, then describe those same symptoms to his own shrink and dish out the drugs he gets prescribed.
The problem with Charlie Bartlett is that he isn’t very likable. It was easy to see why everyone in school liked Ferris Bueller, and even Max Fisher had a certain outsider charm. But it’s easy to see why no one wants to hang with Charlie Bartlett. He does weird impressions, is kind of jerk, and generally has poor social skills of the awkward and unendearing variety.
The other problem with Charlie Bartlett (the movie) is that it’s unrealistic to the point that the story feels forced. Take Charlie’s entrance into the world of drug dealing, for example. After Charlie takes Ritalin for the first time, he has such a good time dancing around his house and running around the neighborhood in his underwear that he decides to sell the rest of his supply at the school dance. Which of course turns into a naked rave party. The whole thing might’ve been a cute plot point if most of the audience didn’t understand the difference between Ritalin and Ecstasy. Since we do, it’s a little hard to swallow. And keep in mind, Charlie’s newfound popularity, pretty much the entire premise of the movie, rests on this plot point. Other moments are equally inexplicable, like when Charlie loses his virginity to the principal’s daughter in the backroom of a party and then announces it on the microphone to the entire school. Granted, I wasn’t having much sex in high school, but I think publicly embarrassing the one girl who was nice enough to let you bang her wouldn’t be the best way to get repeat business. And I doubt it’d be greeted with a laugh and a shrug like it is here.
Ferris Bueller’s popularity was a means to have fun and take down the prick principal. When he and Robert Downey clash, it’s always because of some misunderstanding. And Charlie Bartlett’s popularity seems to be a means to teach us life lessons about “popularity not being as important as what you do with it.” We’re willing to suspend disbelief for curving bullets, bus drivers who look like models, or the nerd who gets the girl. But in Charlie Bartlett, all we really get is overblown high school drama and afternoon-special-worthy life lessons. Want an idea what a downer this is? The big happy ending is Charlie getting an internship with a Psychologist. Seriously. Oh yeah, sorry for the spoiler, but you’ll thank me later.