Movie News & Reviews

"Charlie Bartlett" needed to be pared down

As far as I can figure it, there are two steps to making good movies.

Step one: put some heart into it. That way we can pretend we're thecharacters when they go and do something completely unbelievable, likehave girlfriends.

Step two: well...everything else that makes movies good. You know, car crashes. Pretty ladies. People leaping out ofplanes without parachutes and then stretching their shirt out like aflying squirrel and gliding to safety. Or, if you're not into thewhole explosions thing, well-crafted dramas where the people act likepeople and throw some light onto what it's all about.

I'm kind of bummed out by movies such as Charlie Bartlett, worksthat pull off step one (good intentions) but totally drop the ball onstep two (the execution). Like candy Circus Peanuts, they always feellike they should be better than they actually are.

Expelled from private school for selling fake IDs -- not because heneeded the money, but because he wanted to be appreciated -- AntonYelchin has a rough transition to the local high school. His fancysuits stand out, most of the kids ignore him, and the few who do payhim any mind, like mohawked thug Tyler Hilton, are much moreinterested in kicking his ass than playing nice.

His fellow students know his name once he starts peddling hisprescription of Ritalin at school, though. Partnering up with Hilton(ah, the power of money to bring people together), he builds athriving business in prescription meds and offers free therapy in theschool bathroom to any kid who just wants to talk.

Alcoholic and unrespected principal Robert Downey, Jr. starts to takenotice of Yelchin's stunts, too, especially when he hears Yelchin'sbeen seeing his daughter Kat Dennings, another student at the school.With the threat of expulsion looming again, Yelchin's got to find away to keep helping his new friends' confused lives without wreckinghis own in the process.

That's Charlie Bartlett's boiled-down plot. The full one's anepisodic stew of school plays, dances, protests, out-of-touchadministrators and depressed minor characters without the personalityto leave any lasting impression.

Neither first-time writer Gustin Nash or second-time director Jon Pollhave a sure handle on what they're working with. Poll's subtle ideaof a Ritalin high is to show Yelchin racing around an empty pool tofrantic piano music, then dashing outside and screaming in the yard innothing but his underpants. That wouldn't be very funny in aslapstick comedy. In the middle of a dramedy where its heart is itsbiggest asset, it's just jarring.

So how much credit does that heart earn it? Well, you can't hatecharacters when you've got some sympathy for them (and the cast isdefinitely likable), but you can break your jaw yawning during thoseeighty-hundred scenes in the movie's middle with only tangential linksto the main plot. At some point any conflict dries up altogether,replaced by a well-meaning but awkward run about how hard it is togrow up, especially when one or both of your parents have seriousproblems of their own. Which, apparently, is harder than performingdental surgery while wearing Mickey Mouse gloves.

Charlie Bartlett could have used an ironfisted editor who'dlaugh uproariously as he burned film by the can until it's got abouthalf as many plot points and a third as many earnestly expressedfeelings flying around. That wouldn't solve all its problems -- thatwould take stronger characters and a clearer idea of whether it wantedto be a high school farce or a touching drama -- but it would be astart.

Grade: C+