Considering Rob Reiner directs Being Charlie from a script co-written by his son, Nick (with Matt Elisofon), based on their own experiences with rehab, it should be a very personal movie. Yet, if you didn’t know better, it’d seem pretty faithful to the established rehab narrative. Privileged kid goes to rehab, rages against the rehab system, meets a hot tragic sad girl and a cool black mentor from the mean streets, and eventually achieves sobriety on his own terms (gets tattoo?). The story beats are roughly the same as A Million Little Pieces.
Occasionally, Reiner and Elisofon succeed in making this story their own (Common plays the cool black guy from the mean streets, and he does seem like he’d be a great mentor). Their protagonist, Charlie, the son of a famous actor running for governor of California, is an aspiring stand up comedian, which they misguidedly try to make seem hip and cool (Check it out, bro, I got Lenny Bruce on vinyl). It’s a little clunky as a plot point, but there are other scenes – like one at group family day, where the f*ck up, rehabbing sons are bookended on each side by their sobbing, guilt-racked mothers – that feel more honest, and funnier as a result.
Rich Kid Problems work better when you don’t try to make them universal; when you don’t skimp on the exotic, the specific (probably true of any personal narrative). Call it the Bret Easton Ellis effect. I don’t much want to watch private school kids whine about their fathers not paying attention, but I’m happy to watch them have more sex and do more drugs than I could ever afford. Likewise, the Being Charlie scenes where Charlie’s rehab is depicted as a kooky vegan LA rehab center work better than the ones where it’s Any Rehab.
Charlie quickly falls for a Cool Girl (but she’s got issues, man) named Eva, played by Morgan Saylor, aka Brody’s daughter from Homeland. The F*cked Up Girl could be seen as a rehab story trope, but rehab is a place that sticks a bunch of young people with impulse control problems in a house with nothing to do all day and then tries to keep them from screwing each other using nothing but guilt. It’s hard to imagine there NOT being a F*cked Up Girl in that situation.
Being Charlie‘s take on it isn’t *too* painfully cookie cutter (at least she isn’t a photographer), and they mostly just hint at her f*cked upness with no “tearful reveal of her tragic past” scene (strong decision). In fact, the Charlie and Eva storyline might have played better with a different cast. Nick Robertson is passable, if not especially charismatic, as Charlie, with a New Yorky-sounding accent that doesn’t quite fit a rich kid from LA. Saylor commits hard, but her timing is off. It takes her too long to react to moments and then when she does, she overdoes the eyebrow and forehead movements so that her every emotion seems… labored. Belabored. She reads “actress” more than “person.” Also, she appears briefly topless in the movie, which makes Rob Reiner’s comments about too much sex in today’s rom-coms kind of ironic, coming from the guy who just spent a few days pointing klieg lights at Brody’s daughter’s nips.
Being Charlie is admirably personal, and it has a willingness to be vulnerable that often works, but there’s an unexamined whininess to it that kills any momentum it builds. There’s no acknowledgement of how childish it sounds always blaming everything on your rich, mostly pretty civilized dad (played here by Reiner’s Wesley, Cary Elwes), who at worst wasn’t home to personally wield the silver spoon you were fed with. There’s a particularly laughable scene between Charlie and his best friend where they have a cry sesh about their dads over some cocaine – “My dad only cares about me making him look bad.” “Yeah well at least your dad cares at all!”
Woe is us! I mean, not everyone with emotional issues got beat with towel handle or had cigarettes stubbed out on their skin, but just a little acknowledgement by either the filmmaker or the characters themselves that they have it pretty good would’ve gone a long way. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting privileged writers not write what they know — it’s far preferable to cultural tourism or magical realist poverty porn. Being Charlie is on the right track, it just lacks perspective.
It seems a bit reductive to suggest that the root of all addiction is daddy issues, yet Being Charlie feels trapped inside that myopic bubble. At first read, it might seem ballsy for Rob Reiner to direct such a “f*ck you dad!” movie written by his own son, considering what it might say about him (and the real-life Reiner subtext does make Being Charlie more compelling). But by laying every addiction problem at dad’s doorstep, it’s kind of like the trope where the wife cheating is always the husband’s fault. It seems unfair to the men at first, but it’s actually the opposite – some male screenwriter wanting to believe that the man was the one in control the entire time (denying the female character agency in the process). “Crazy thing: turns out my son going to rehab was actually all about me.”
Rob Reiner (who was present for the Q&A, and who seems like an incredibly charming man) is surely smart enough to know that, but I think he may have just been too blinded by the goal of advocating for a kinder, gentler rehab system to fully realize what his movie suggests about fathers and sons. It probably brought them closer together; it just didn’t have quite the same effect on me.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.