Friday, March 27, 2009

Charlie Bartlett

Underestimated, Overlooked
Charlie Bartlett (Jon Poll, 2008) (home) Critics don't make movie decisions for me, but a good one can help me narrow my options. Thus, when Bob Mondello of National Public Radio listed Charlie Bartlett as one of the Neglected Films of 2008 Still Worth Watching, I paid attention and was rewarded.

Starring Robert Downey Junior and Anton Yelchin, who seems to have played bit parts on every major TV drama but is only now moving into film, Charlie Bartlett tells the story of a super-rich youth who has been kicked out of every private school available for running entrepreneurial scams that unnecessarily line his pockets and - more importantly - give him a thrill.

When his over-medicated and far-from-nurturing mother finally reaches her last straw, Charlie is dispatched to public school - wisely eschewing the limo in favor of the bus, but seemingly oblivious to the equally voluble statement made by his crested dinner jacket.

What follows is a mix of standard high-school movie plots following an arc from bullied and ridiculed outsider/geek to beloved school hero/rebel dating the Principal's attractive daughter and prescribing psycho-active medications to fellow students in ad hoc therapy sessions held "confession style" in adjacent bathroom stalls.


You see, Charlie Bartlett is strictly American Pie in many senses - but it is the really funny and good-natured 1999 original, well-baked pie rather than the numerous half-baked sequel pies that followed. However, in the place of American Pie's single-minded obsession with all jokes adolescent and sexual, Charlie Barlett is also a refreshing and funny take on standard fish-out-of-water fare - a feat accomplished largely by Yelchin's strong performance, as he really captures and conveys the "I don't know who I am" feeling that being a teenager is all about.

What Charlie Bartlett ends up being is absolutely hilarious and heart-warming. We care about Charlie because we never resent his riches, we understand his motives, we see that the adults around him have little more idea of who they are than he does, and we never fail to appreciate that he is ultimately a good guy who will make the right decisions.

No Coins Please
To shift frames of reference a little, what Charlie Bartlett reminded me of most was the work of young-adult Canadian lit author Gordon Korman. Those who read Korman in their younger days will recognize a bit of Artie Shaw from one of my favorites, No Coins Please.

Charlie Bartlett, like much of Korman's earlier work (not having read his later outings), is a variety of pure, innocent pleasure that leaves you smiling and feeling good about the world without the "I just ate too much sugar" sick-to-the-stomach hangover that feel-good films can induce - Charlie Bartlett has an edge, and it should not be overlooked.

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