If you had John Hughes remake Rushmore the result might faintly resemble Charlie Bartlett, but it would still have more originality, heart and meaning to it. That’s no accident because Charlie Bartlett is basically a mash up of some of the more current R-Rated High School movies like Rushmore, Brick and Napoleon Dynamite. Or to put it another way, imagine that Max from Rushmore was also the drug dealer from Brick with a hint of Napoleon Dynamite and you basically have Charlie Bartlett laid out for you.
How dead on is it? For starters Charlie Bartlett copies the first 2 minutes of Rushmore. Rushmore didn’t invent that opening but it’s not too hard to figure out where Charlie Bartlett got it. Directed by Jon Poll, best known as Jay Roach’s editor on a handful of movies, it has all the pre-processed hallmarks of a Jay Roach movie and is completely devoid of any originality, unsurprising since Jay Roach is also on board as the producer.
Charlie Bartlett stars Anton Yelchin, who seems to have Walter Koenig’s offbeat intonation, as the title character, who just wants to be popular. When he’s kicked out of private school, after about 5 minutes of bullying, he instantly becomes the most popular kid in school by selling medications to the student body and playing bathroom psychiatrist.
Charlie Bartlett is however an annoying character and his incredible popularity is completely unbelievable and reminds me of Peter Parker under the influence of Venom twirling around New York City and seducing women just by looking at them. It’s not Anton Yelchin’s fault though, Gustin Nash’s script expects us to like a rich boy whose great tragedy is that his father is in jail for tax evasion. Then if that wasn’t enough of an uphill challenge, 10 minutes in and for the entire movie, everyone in the movie is in love with Charlie Bartlett, not even the Indian kid whose eyes roll the first time Charlie Bartlett does his shtick or Robert Downey Jr’s Principal Gardner who presses charges against him, can resist Charlie Bartlett.
Where characters like Rushmore’s Max or Napoleon Dynamite were outsiders who never quite fit in but managed to triumph through their awkward enthusiasm, Charlie Bartlett triumphs because he has some hypnotic power that causes everyone to love him. The depiction of the Western Southern High School (Ha Ha) is just as unrealistic as that and it begins when Charlie Bartlett stumbles on campus and immediately is menaced by stoners, punk, goths and skateboarders in that order as all the cliched cliques are laid out only never to be seen again.
Charlie Bartlett’s worst crime as a movie though is its Popular-like insistence on having something relevant to say. Act after act, Charlie Bartlett strings you along with its self-importance only to realize that it’s basically just Kids in America with an indie flavor and less meaning to it. Had Charlie Bartlett gone straight as a comedy, it would have been The New Guy. Instead it constantly batters you over the head with its promise of some important message about what being a kid in High School means while underplaying the comedy only to throw a musical montage at you as its ending, clumsily trying to tie everything together with a song in the way that bad indies do.
Robert Downey Jr’s Principal Gardner is the only redeeming thing about Charlie Bartlett and the only thing that grounds it in any kind of objective reality. As Charlie Bartlett’s equivalent of Rushmore’s Herman Blume, Robert Downey Jr. wears the same bitter unspoken regrets and self-destructive apathy that Bill Murray displayed in Rushmore, but Charlie Bartlett makes no pretense that Garden and Charlie are equals. Instead Charlie gets Gardner fired, preaches at him, rescues him and finally completes the process of turning Gardner into the last character in the movie to learn to love Charlie Bartlett.