Movie Review: Charlie Bartlett
By Matthew Huntley
February 27, 2008
Charlie Bartlett is an ambitious film that descends into a wasted opportunity. Thinking back on it, it's easy to see where the filmmakers could have gone right so many times but instead chose to play it safe and make the movie a mere crowd pleaser. It's a shame, too, since the premise has so much potential, especially in our current Prozac nation.
The movie opens with Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) getting expelled from a private school for selling fake IDs. His mother (Hope Davis) comments to the dean, "You have to admit, they are pretty authentic." Charlie must now enroll in public school, which isn't used to welcoming kids with crested jackets and creased khakis.
Charlie lives alone with his mother in their big mansion. His father is in prison for tax evasion, which Charlie hasn't fully accepted or dealt with yet. It's a good thing the family has an on-call psychiatrist, Dr. Weathers (Stephen Young), in case Charlie ever needs to talk to a professional.
At his new school, Charlie catches the eye of Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), who happens to be the daughter of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.). He also runs into the fists of the school bully, a Mohawk-ed fellow named Murphy (Tyler Hilton). When Charlie comes home with a black eye, his mother sends him to Dr. Weathers, who attributes Charlie's problems, for whatever reason, to attention deficit disorder, and so prescribes him Prozac. The shrink's philosophy: if Charlie does have ADD, then he'll respond to the Prozac; if not, well, then he doesn't have ADD.
Of course, Charlie does not have ADD. He's just a bright, normal teenager trying to fit in. After the Prozac makes him high, Charlie thinks up the clever idea to befriend Murphy and go into business selling prescription drugs to the other students. At the school dance, the medication works almost instantaneously and girls start running around topless.
Pretty soon, the students start coming to Charlie for psychiatric advice. He sets up his own office in the boys' bathroom and students tell him their problems with school, their parents, sex, etc. Charlie then goes to his doctors, acquires prescriptions, and charges the students for the medication.
It's obvious the filmmakers wanted to make a satirical comedy about America's obsession with anti-depression drugs and how often we're told we need them, not to mention the ease by which we can get them. We all want to believe one drug can free us from our mental pain, but that's not realistic. One student confides in Charlie that he's severely depressed and suffers from panic attacks. But, as the movie rightfully points out, problems like these go deeper and can take months, even years, to overcome. Drugs help, but they aren't necessarily the cure.
Charlie Bartlett suggests the solution for teen angst is listening to kids and encouraging them to find means for expression, by providing them an outlet and a chance to be themselves (and hopefully being appreciated for it). The movie isn't as heavy-handed as I'm making it out to be. It's mostly a teen comedy, with many of the usual developments we've come to expect from the genre (first dates, first kiss, losing your virginity). These feel old and tired and aren't given much fresh thought, but there are a few inspired moments, like when Charlie and Murphy make a "Greatest Bully Fights" DVD and sell it to the same kids who were beaten up.
As a social commentary, Charlie Bartlett only takes its ideas so far before turning patronizing and unwilling to see its points all the way through. It shows the adverse consequences of what Charlie is doing with the drugs but still resorts to an ending that feels too artificially upbeat. Each of the characters finds a resolution that's provided too quickly. It offers the same quick fix for the characters as Charlie's psychiatrist does to him, which felt hypocritical because this was the philosophy it was working against. The way it was going, it seemed the movie needed an ending that was more open-ended and realistic. As is, it feels like a typical "movie" ending, which doesn't work because the movie is trying to be anything but typical.
There are some fine performances here, especially Robert Downey Jr., who has a knack for balancing solemnity with sarcasm. And Yelchin possesses an distinctive charm he's sure to utilize later on. But Charlie Bartlett has a subject it's not ready to fully deal with. We can at least hope it's started a trend of looking at something as serious and prolific as depression and finding the humor in it.