Sunday, February 24, 2008

A gentle push: Charlie Bartlett

An actual person resembling the titular teenage hero of Charlie Bartlett probably doesn’t exist and never could. Amiable, politically gifted, and imminently resourceful –by which I mean stinking rich– Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is the reincarnation of Ferris Bueller for a generation of kids even more image-conscious and choked by ideologies of consumerism and control than that of Bueller’s Reagan era preppies. Kicked out of several private schools, Charlie goes to public school and, devising an admirably clever scheme to accumulate hordes of prescription drugs, becomes a pusher of Prozac and Ritalin to classmates of every faction. He also turns the school’s boy’s room into a therapist’s office, offering an ear, a shoulder, and instant meds to all at cut-rate prices. And Charlie likes his work, because above all, Charlie just wants to be liked.

I don’t really mind that Charlie himself is such an artificial character. The situations he engineers are pretty fun, and the improbable scope of his powers of persuasion and appeal to the masses thanks to his pharmaceutical operation implies a sly commentary on the loathsome hypocrisies of American drug culture: the pills Charlie pedals are legal, but just as formidable as the illegal ones commonly sought by teens. He also in his daydream world has one of the most charming teen movie moms in recent memory (the lovely Hope Davis), an endearingly clueless, well-dressed tippler too far removed from everyday life to really know how what a normal parent is supposed to do.

What I find more problematic is how wildly unrealistic everything else is in Charlie Bartlett, namely the risibly innocent high schoolers that so easily band together for whatever cause, who all treat Charlie like a God, who (save Tyler Hilton’s appealing bully-for-hire with a sensitive side) each fall into some lame stereotype, who seem universally oblivious to the fact that Charlie’s advice is mostly based on common sense. Charlie’s peers are mostly just a backdrop to a air-brushed fantasy of teen life that could have packed a little more of a comic edge if injected with a dose of real risk, something absent even in the film’s quickie but blandly maudlin suicide attempt scene. It also goes on way too long and ends with one of those singing in the auditorium finales that make any self-respecting teenager gag. Still, the highlights are still more winsome than the vast majority of comedies out there right now.

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