Remember four years ago, theaters were perpetually populated with at least two or three seperate comedic teen dramas? Over the years, it seems like the movie industry has grown up, especially in regard to high school coming-of-age comedy. The recent success of the raunchy but funny “Superbad” and the Oscar-winning “Juno” the have sought to combine the awkwardness of adolescence with adult themes of acceptance, relationships and decision-making, all while remaining heavy on big laughs. Even “Mean Girls,” this generation’s never-ending fountain of instantaneous quotes, digs beneath the superficial skin of the teen comedies of yesteryear, mocking the very genre it falls in line with.
With this trend, which seems to be ditching the tired formula of the past in exchange for a fresher, slightly more cynical view of these developmental years, “Charlie Bartlett” seemed destined to shine as the latest installment to elicit laughs and thoughtful reflection from audiences. The title character of the film is a wealthy and cunning teenage boy who we are told has been expelled from a collection of private schools, not for poor grades or tardiness, but for oddball delinquencies (the film opens with Charlie receiving heat for operating a fake I.D. ring out of his dorm room). With few options left, the boy is sent to public school, which is blandly depicted as a wild zoo of stonewalled cliques and overtly angst-ridden and misunderstood demeanors.
Charlie predictably has a difficult time fitting in at school but through the deep pockets of his mother and his ability to score prescriptions from the countless shrinks he goes to, he is able to start his own mental health clinic stationed out of the boy’s bathroom. I don’t want to give too much away, but he makes friends with a bully, rakes in a lot of dough and (of course) falls in love with a girl who just happens to be the daughter of the principal.
Sounds like a pretty effective teen film with just enough original flair to keep itself afloat, but as the film progresses, it seems like the aim of “Charlie Bartlett” becomes quite confused. Things start to get muddled in a morbid kind of way with the attempted suicide of one of Charlie’s classmates and the threateningly offensive mental instability of the alcoholic principal, played by Robert Downey Jr. The light-hearted film, in what seems to be an attempt to reach some sort of deeply moving inner purpose, takes a nose dive into melancholy. The movie begins to get so wrapped up in trying to really mean something that it ignores the audience’s reaction and neglects character development.
And many of the characters at Charlie’s school are just that – characters. Flat cutouts of specific stereotypes meant merely to move along the story with their predictable actions. Even the title character seems phony. Unlike Ellen Page’s character in “Juno,” the film tries too hard to make us like him. It’s disappointing that such an original concept for a film was wasted on a final product that becomes disingenuous and unsure of itself. The actual message gets lost on all its flaws.
It wants the silly satirical elements that made “Mean Girls” so likable and hilarious, while also wanting to be the indie, dark comedy that “Juno” is. But sorry Charlie, you can’t have it both ways.