"Charlie Bartlett" is little more than an R-rated "Afterschool Special."
Like its hero, "Charlie Bartlett" is urgently eager to please. Charlie, a rich teen booted from his elite school for faking IDs, walks the unruly hallways of his new public high school with a handshake and a cheery hello for nerds, jocks and punks alike. Anton Yelchin (Ensign Chekov in the upcoming "Star Trek") plays him with wide eyes and a fixed smile, a one-man charm offensive. His bottomless need for acceptance makes Charlie a less edgy relation of Ferris Beuller and "Rushmore's" Max Fischer, and the film suffers from a similar emphasis on surface charm over quirky individuality.
Charlie's mild-mannered amiability may be a trait he absorbed during the years he has spent with his family's on-call psychiatrist, and it serves him well as he navigates his new school's treacherous social ecosystem. Everyone he encounters is a coming-of-age character type with an easily diagnosed strain of teen anxiety. School thug Murph (Tyler Hilton, who resembles Morrissey with a mohawk) has low self-esteem. The cheerleader can't say no and the football star can't tell his dad he wants to go to art school. Sarcastic drama student Susan (Kat Dennings) feels suffocated by her father, the principal.
Charlie, with a practiced sensitivity to teen angst, becomes the school's unofficial therapist. He learns each student's symptoms, parrots them back to his doctors and returns to campus with a pharmacy's worth of mood meds. Before you can say benzodiazepine, he's selling chemical cheer from a makeshift dispensary in the boys' bathroom, and doing talk therapy confessional-style in the toilet stalls. The plot is played for lightweight fun until an overdose clouds the mood, the students riot to protest newly installed surveillance cameras and family tensions at the principal's house come to a boil.
The film scores a casting coup with rehab poster boy Robert Downey Jr., who brings gravity and impeccable comic timing to the role of the overwhelmed, boozing administrator. He and Hope Davis, underplaying Charlie's daffy mom (who considers wine tastings a great bonding activity), deliver strong, darkly funny performances. Her idea of parenting is leaving a note that says, "Ritalin in bag, dinner in oven, Mom."
Alas, the story's sense of inauthenticity overwhelms their contributions and Yelchin's agreeable presence. The first directorial outing by ace comedy editor Jon Poll ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents"), the film feels like an old person's notion of how young people live. The musical bash where Charlie tastefuly loses his virginity looks as if it was re-created from memories of groovy Lovin' Spoonful concerts, and the interplay of laughs and drama is strictly "Afterschool Special." It's uplifting to see a story where every significant character ends up a little better than they started, but the path to that resolution is unconvincing and flat. We come to see that Charlie is immersing himself in other people's problems as a distraction from his own; in the same way, "Charlie Bartlett" is a minor, short-term tranquilizer, not a miracle cure.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186