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February 19, 2008 10:18 AM
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REVIEW | Prep Rally: Jon Poll's "Charlie Bartlett"

A scene from Jon Poll's "Charlie Bartlett." Image courtesy of MGM.

Who is Charlie Bartlett? A quirky know-it-all, a likeable dweeb, a guileless Ferris Bueller for our overmedicated age. Director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash's movie is about a teenager who gets kicked out of prep school, joins the hoi polloi, makes a name for himself as the student body's resident therapist/pharmacologist, and wins over the girl and the school by the end. Bullies are swayed by his dime-store analysis; a hottie buys his eccentric, overprivileged shtick. A good guy? Sure he is. In fact, he hangs out with a developmentally disabled kid, one of those ostensibly hilarious retards with weird facial tics and involuntary hand gestures that somehow always pop up in the frame when the movie needs a laugh. So yeah, he's pretty cool.

Who is Charlie Bartlett? A lonely, mixed-up guy, indulged by his narcotized mom (Hope Davis), abandoned by a criminal dad. Played by Anton Yelchin, he's a mascot for Prozac Nation, but also a tribute to the latchkey kid, raising himself because mommy was too blitzed and daddy was, well, in jail. Charlie's essential sadness finally apparent, the school principal (Robert Downey, Jr.) asks him, "So who takes care of you?" An army of Zach Braff groupies nod knowingly, thinking, "That's me up there!"

Who is Charlie Bartlett? A kid who wants to be popular, who cares more about extracurriculars than academics, who believes himself wiser beyond his years. The movie opens with Charlie daydreaming about being cheered on by classmates; it ends with a theatrical production at the school that brings everyone together. In between is a plot about failing out of a prestigious institution and dealing with life in public school. Ring a bell? One crucial difference between Charlie Bartlett and "Rushmore"'s Max Fischer is that the former is rich, the latter working class. In "Charlie Bartlett," the spoiled preppie changes everyone's listless lives -- the affluent's gift to the masses. Another obvious antecedent is Ferris Bueller -- except John Hughes and Matthew Broderick were in on the absurd joke of Ferris's popularity. (The "Save Ferris" sign on the water tower was the coup de grace.) In "Charlie Bartlett," Charlie really does become a folk hero on his own terms, and the movie ends up an unironic affirmation of privilege, popularity, and hero worship.

Who is Charlie Bartlett? Take a chunk of Ferris Bueller, a large cut of Max Fischer, dashes of Largeman in "Garden State" and Juno, and Igby, mix them all up, and blend to a fine puree. Then, drink it up -- drink it right up! -- and puke it back out. That's Charlie Bartlett.

[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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