March 2, 2008

Running Around in Your Underwear, Hopped Up on Pills

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With the influx of indie comedies (Juno and Little Miss Sunshine) and high school comedies (Superbad), Charlie Bartlett emerges like a phoenix from the flames of unsuccessful movies that crashed and burned. It tries to emulate recent successes and weld the two genres to make a high school comedy with an indie feel. Anton Yelchin steps out from the backdrop of supporting casting (Alpha Dog) and demonstrates he has the necessary talent to take the lead. The film is a rebellious comedy full of energy and high spirits.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a preppy rich kid who has been kicked out of every private school as a result of illegal behavior in his never-ending quest for acceptance and popularity. His mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), a free-spirited alcoholic, decides to enroll Charlie in a public school. Upon his arrival, he immediately realizes that he doesn’t fit in, especially with his private school attire (blazer and tie). With his challenging transition, he is diagnosed with ADD and prescribed Ritalin. After going bonkers running around the neighborhood in his underwear hopped up on the pills, Charlie discovers that all the students are burdened with their own problems. He figures he can prescribe drugs to his fellow classmates and that being the elusive in-school psychiatrist will make him a hero. This gimmick, however, puts him in the hot seat when he clashes with the weary Principal Gardner (Robert Downy Jr.), whose role is dichotomous of his principal obligations and an empathy challenged father.
For the first half of the movie, Charlie Bartlett has you rolling to the floor laughing. Its humor is a fusion of subtle and blatant, but done in such a way that is quite entertaining. Antics such as Charlie taking the short bus to school, trying to befriend bullies using an extensive vocabulary and auditioning for the drama club impersonating a drag queen are just some of the absurd instances that grab hold of the audience. Charlie is very mature for his age, for his father is out of the picture and he has taken responsibility for his mother.
There were a few different avenues that the movie could have taken; unfortunately it steered down the wrong one. As funny as the first half is, Charlie Bartlett dips on the laugh-o-meter as it attempts to delve into the human consciousness and alludes to the characters’ pasts. It seems everyone in this story has skeletons in their closets, and tiptoes around the potential for sharing them. As a result you get this pestering, back-and-forth pleading on both ends for Charlie and the gang to bare their souls, which comes way too late.
Charlie Bartlett attempts a smooth transition from comedy into drama in its second half. I found this to be superfluous direction to take. Charlie Bartlett was fine and cruises along dishing out laughs like it was going to be the next Juno, but then decides to tank and show everyone’s dark side. Charlie is sensitive about his father’s nonexistent presence and Principal Gardner is an alcoholic who waves a handgun around. The back stories that are revealed to us are depressing to the point that you’re agitated and wonder why you wandered down this path in a comedy.
After the film’s dive into the crevice of dark depressing hardships, the story climbs out of these surprisingly explored depths and restores the balance in favor of the humor we held dear to begin with. Charlie is a compassionate human being who’s so desperate to be liked, he befriends everyone from all cliques and brings the student body together; the jocks, the geeks, the punks — everyone. Even his series of face-offs with Principal Gardner make for some good scenes. Bartlett even unintentionally gets under Gardner’s skin as he dates his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings), the fat annoying shrieker from The 40 Year-Old Virgin (who has dropped some weight in this film).
The acting is great from all ends; even from Robert Downy Jr. who’s shown a terrific comeback from his drug-addicted days as Ironman and others loom on the horizon. Anton Yelchin is funny as the quick-witted, feel-good doctor adjusting to the social confines of a public school. Hope Davis is classic as Marilyn, who hangs around the mansion all day with an endless supply of Courvoisier and a chauffeur to play badminton with horrifically.
The intelligent humor is definitely original and displays imagination and inventiveness. It’s certainly worth a watch, just don’t let the film’s ostentatious, quirky opening mislead you into believing that it will be the next Oscar-winning indie film.