If the fictional characters Ferris Bueller (during his “day off”) and Max Fischer (the would-be Rushmore
alum) joined together and had a child, their spawn would most certainly turn out something like this movie’s titular character, Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin). This new, R-rated teen comedy would very much like to become the emblematic high school movie of its time, and its stellar cast and topical storyline about overprescribed pharmaceuticals help kick Charlie Bartlett
toward the vicinity of its goal line. But the soft and derivative script by newcomer Gustin Nash and the lax direction by editor-turned-first-time-director Poll lend the film about as much kick as a placebo. The story is set into motion as rich kid Charlie is kicked out of his final private school (this time for manufacturing fake IDs) and his loving but narcotized mother (Davis) sends him to a public high school. Even though adults advise him that there’s more to high school than being well-liked, Charlie desperately wants to fit in and carve out his own little domain. When he realizes that he can dole out to his classmates the Ritalin and other drugs that the psychiatrist (whom his family keeps on retainer) prescribes for him, Charlie discovers the makings of a whole new status-creating enterprise. Soon he has set up office in the school restroom to dole out pills and common-sense psychological wisdom to his grateful classmates, using the bathroom stalls like mock confessional booths. A budding romance with the principal’s rebellious daughter, Susan (Dennings), puts Charlie in the crosshairs of principal Gardner (Downey Jr.), a self-medicating alcoholic who would like to go back to being a simple history teacher instead of the school’s chief disciplinarian. Although Charlie does achieve popularity, events occur midway through the film that cause the teen to renounce his drug dealing, at which point the film becomes a hodgepodge of standard high school situations and a push toward Charlie’s resolution of his absent-dad issues. As Charlie, Yelchin (Alpha Dogs
) almost sells the movie by the sheer virtue of his dynamic performance. The young actor announces his talent with the same kind of “here I am” nonchalance that was displayed by Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
and Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore
. When Yelchin shares scenes with a powerhouse like Downey Jr. (who gets the biggest meta-laugh of the movie when he declares in his stupor, “Never attack a drunk guy with a gun”), the screen is barely able to contain the two. Sequences like the silly montage of Charlie on Ritalin (which just looks like the precious doodles of a former editor), grievously underdeveloped characters, and heavy heapings of sap instead of snark keep Charlie Bartlett
from making the dean’s list.