Dir. Jon Poll
Premiered at Tribeca May 1, 2007
For a friend of a friend, 1989-2016
I can confidently say that no film from 2007 will perplex me like Charlie Bartlett does. It unsuccessfully tries to capture the magic of a dozen other films, yet succeeds wildly at being something new. The story is pure teenage power fantasy, yet the dialogue is unequivocally grown-up. It’s charming, but not funny. It’s truthful, but unrealistic. The cast has outstanding chemistry, but the movie prominently features a Cat Stevens cover, which is just unacceptable.
Charlie Bartlett was yet another film compared unfavorably to Rushmore, and it’s at least more deserving of that criticism than Rocket Science was. Like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, the titular Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a precocious troublemaker who entertains fantasies of his own popularity, takes a recurring interest in theatre, and makes a powerful adult enemy.
Otherwise, though, Charlie is the opposite of Max: he’s rich, doted on by his mother (Hope Davis), a good student, a juvenile delinquent from the start, and frankly way nicer and funnier. In many ways, Charlie feels more like Ferris Bueller, and just as Bueller needed Matthew Broderick to make him likable, Charlie Bartlett without Yelchin would probably have drawn more comparisons to Ryan Philippe in Cruel Intentions.
After being expelled from seemingly every prep school in his state, Charlie tries his hand at public school. Following a wobbly transition, Charlie charms the pants off Susan (Kat Dennings), the daughter of the school’s depressed alcoholic Principal (Robert Downey Jr.). Charlie also starts giving ad-hoc therapy sessions in the boys’ bathroom, where his open heart wins new friends while his easy access to psychiatric medications, aided by his family doctor (Stephen Young) and erstwhile bully (Tyler Hilton), makes him indispensable.
Just a reminder that if not for Yelchin, this movie would have been an insufferable masturbatory fantasy.
Charlie Bartlett’s relationship with reality is flexible in a way that probably would have worked better in a more explicitly comedic movie. At the same time, it’s unexpectedly emotionally honest, to the point that I began to wonder if screenwriter Gustin Nash hadn’t written the first draft during his own high school years– aside from a few superficialities, there’s no reason that this story couldn’t have been set during the ‘80s or ‘90s. To paraphrase an old description of Romeo and Juliet, Charlie Bartlett tries to be a comedy of youth as youth sees it, and succeeds just enough for me to like it. But in 2007, another movie tried to the same thing, and blew this movie right out of the fucking water.
This movie features an out-of-nowhere sex scene. Not out-of-nowhere because it’s a sex scene, but because it’s atrociously edited in a manner appearing nowhere else in the movie.
How Did It Do?
Aside from Taxi to the Dark Side, Charlie Bartlett was the most notable film to come out of Tribeca that year, but only in retrospect: it won no festival awards, had its wide release postponed by six months, and was a pitiful flop, earning just $5.2 million against a $12 million budget. Critics were stubbornly on the fence, making frequent comparisons to the aforementioned Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as Pump Up the Volume and Election, earning it a 56% rating on RottenTomatoes. Jon Poll, an editor by trade, had never directed before and never would again.
However, a month before its home video release, a little movie came out called Iron Man, elevating the star of Robert Downey, Jr. to the point that just having his name and face on a poster could turn Charlie Bartlett from a critical and commercial embarrassment to the teen cult movie of 2008, one of the most popular rentals of that year; a film that has somehow found its way onto the shelves of almost every house and apartment I’ve ever lived in; and a retroactive star vehicle for Yelchin, who went on to play Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies before his tragically premature death in a freak accident last year.
Next Time: Shrek the Third