Charlie Bartlett (***)
The slick, charismatic, eponymous hero of Charlie Bartlett, well-played by Anton Yelchin, is obviously meant as a riff on John Hughes’s preppy icon of ’80s rebellion, Ferris Bueller. Unlike Bueller, however, Bartlett claims the school, rather than the outside world, as his exclusive domain. He shuns the victimology of the high-priced child-psych shrinks his alcoholic mother (Hope Davis) sends him to, and exploits the shrinks’ rubber-wrist prescription writing, selling anti-depressants and stimulants to his messed-up peers in the boys’ bathroom and becoming, as a result, the big man on campus.
Charlie Bartlett does a decent job of duplicating other Hughes-isms. Kat Dennings, who looks like a cross between Gwen Stefani and Hillary Duff (this isn’t as awful as it sounds), does a good job as Susan Gardner, Bartlett’s cool, precocious love interest who, twenty years ago, might have been Molly Ringwald. And who better to play Kat’s father and principal than former Hughes boy Robert Downey Jr., who, in an ode to Jeffrey Jones’s bug-eyed performance in Bueller, spies on her and the school’s other rowdy denizens from his office, via a newly-installed network of security cameras?
This all works as a cool trip down teen dramedy lane, but one senses the film could be a lot smarter. Bartlett’s drug selling, it turns out, is not the main subject of the movie; “messed-up people” are, and this causes Charlie Bartlett to lean on psychobabble about disaffection that it initially tries so hard to mock. The film’s use of Cat Stevens’s anthem from Harold and Maude, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” encapsulates its problems; instead of acting as a wry expression of Bartlett’s dark philosophy, the song becomes the kind of pat message of self-empowerment that drives teens to Prozac in the first place.
Charlie Bartlett is now playing at Canada Square (2200 Yonge St.), Soctiabank Theatre (259 Richmond St. W.), The Queensway (1025 The Queensway) and others.