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Charlie Bartlett

MGM // R // June 24, 2008
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 30, 2008 | E-mail the Author
When the world hands you a lack of popularity and an endless pocket of prescription drugs, what do you do? Charlie Bartlett, Jon Poll's comedy about a high school outcast on the verge of self-destruction by ways of illegally popularizing himself, believes you should make lemonade, of course. It's a shame that the lemonade-stand conductor isn't as charming as the stand he represents or I might have bought more into his amusing shenanigans or his path towards self-discovery. Still, it's difficult to peel your eyes from the web of capitalism that Charlie weaves, one crafted within a wayward balance between dark humor and teenie-bopper flavors.

The Film:

Charlie Bartlett focuses on, well, Charlie (Anton Yelchin, Hearts of Atlantis), a prep-school reject kicked on his rear from every single school he attends. He's always rustling up entrepreneurial ideas that get him in trouble with authority, such as throwing together fake drivers licenses. Charlie inadvertently uses these acts as outlets for the shackled kid inside of him, locked away because of his need to take care of his well-to-do mother (Hope Davis, also Hearts of Atlantis and The Weather Man) in place of their unavailable father. Nobody really knows what to do with Charlie, especially therapists -- which strike an idea in the kid's head.

At his new public school, waywardly monitored by principal Gardener (Robert Downey Jr., Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), Charlie devises a plan to exploit his many doctors' unaware prescription-happy fingertips and start his own psychiatry ward out of the school's bathroom -- though it more stands out as a drug trafficking ring run out of its stalls. His scheming gravitates popularity unfamiliar to Charlie, including that from jocks, burnouts, and the affections of the principal's daughter (Kat Dennings, 40 Year Old Virgin). As to be expected, it's only a matter of time before the infrastructure of his little plan begins to crumble, leaving Charlie unaware of how to cope with the mess.

Normally, if the comedic narrative is strong enough, I can look beyond a character or two just for either story or humor's sake. That wasn't possible for Charlie Bartlett at the beginning because, in a nutshell, I shared close to zero identification with Anton Yelchin's Charlie Bartlett. He's supposed to take on a satirical tone early on in the film -- which I could grasp; however, Anton Yelchin's efforts to hollow out and sweeten up Charlie's drug-peddling trickster ways were a bit too successful in my eyes. Instead of portraying entertaining levels of an empty character, he just hits me more as a shallow mockery of a persona similar to Ferris Bueller. Charlie's ideas and actions are all well thought out and cohesive, all the way to his "counseling" sessions in the bathrooms, but they just don't mesh with the inane sycophantic attitude that Yelchin gives Charlie. Imagining the film as a house and Bartlett as the visible outside, it's a matter of the shingles and siding not being quite substantial enough to stick onto the rather sturdy foundation.

Sure, a lot of Charlie Bartlett plays with the themes of teenage drug abuse and the power of popularity that stretch beyond the sphere of influence that Bartlett creates, but the struggle he has with achieving an organic, buyable character makes his efforts out to be something closer to a mockery of the film's ideas. In that, the comedic timing gets steered towards that of a thoughtful spoof of unlikely proportions. It's not so much a slight on Yelchin's shoulders, either, as apparent by a few smart scenes scattered through the film where he shows gravity towards his supporting cast. It wobbles more because of the balance that the filmmakers try to strike between his realism and the front he throws up to protect his emotionally-injured self.

That includes undercutting the romance that he builds with talented actress Kat Dennings' character Susan, along with the underwhelming rapport established with principal Downey Jr. Both perform admirably next to Yelchin's character, so much that they manage to outclass and overwhelm the lead. Downey Jr.'s alcoholic principal persona is surprisingly intriguing, carried by the natural strain he expresses in his eyes. His half-sober relationship with the school and his daughter Susan could have been an entertaining comedic drama in its own right. Plus, just watching a drunken Downey Jr. navigate a remote-controlled boat around his lagoon of a pool while dressed as a pseudo-sailor gives us enough comedic reward alone to keep plugging along.

As the film progresses, both the manner of the film and Bartlett's grating falsetto presence takes a turn for the dramatic, allowing for this triad of characters to unspool and develop with each other in a much more earnest and graspable fashion. It becomes heavily influenced by John Hughes scripted films like Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller as it digs closer to its core, mainly concerning a student demonstration against principal spy cameras and the humanization process of the mohawked "Bender"-like assistant to Bartlett's trafficking which, by the way, was brought to life quite nicely by Tyler Hilton. Shrugging off direct humor, Charlie Bartlett takes more serious turns as it progresses - ones that tinker with the tonal rhythm, but in enjoyable ways that indirectly tap into dark humor.

Charlie Bartlett, even after hitting several bumps along the way, still stands on its wobbling legs as a stimulating and competently shot high school dram-com that's better than it probably should be because of its concentration on complex self-help and peer-help ideas. Jon Poll's film doesn't get too complicated with the direction of its message, thankfully, but still gives its audience a window into seeing how conversation and socialization can ease up on the need for substance abuse. It's a thoughtful saving grace for a meandering and undemanding comedy that relies on character gravity above story arc practicality. What results is Charlie Bartlett standing out as a likable farce that opts away from being a lovably resonant comedy.

The DVD:

MGM brings us Charlie Bartlett in a standard keepcase package with the whole-heartedly unexciting "flipper-disc" presentation that makes both widescreen and fullscreen aspect ratios available for our viewing pleasure.

The Video:

On the widescreen portion of this disc, Charlie Bartlett looks quite nice in its 1.85:1 anamorphic image. The levels of shading and color saturation appear crisp when they needs to be bold, and amply subdued in due measures as well. Some of the darker scenes get a little gray-ish and noisy, but the absolutely marvelous level of detail more than outweighs its fumbling darker levels. The only details that get a little muddy are far-away faces mangled by pixilation. I still particularly relished in the usage of neon colorings in the night club scenes and the blasts of color within Susan's bedroom. It's a clean and solidly enjoyable transfer.

The Audio:

In typical comedic fashion, Charlie Bartlett's Dolby 5.1 track stays heavily the front of the sound spectrum. It's not a terribly noisy picture, aside from spats of musical loudness that actually do stretch to the back in spells. However, vocal clarity comes across with ample clarity, only getting slightly muffled in quieter, more intimate scenes. Overall, this English Dolby track feels mildly wasted, but still suitable for enjoying the film. A Spanish surround track is also available, as are English and Spanish optional subs.

The Extras:

Ahh, many are the woes of working with a flipper disc and supplemental materials. Here's how everything is divided up:

Audio Commentary with Director Poll and Actors Yelchin and Dennings (On WS Side):
It's important that I mention this review first, as this DVD for Charlie Bartlett contains a commentary on each side of the disc. This means that a choice was made to accompany certain tracks with certain aspect ratios. Honestly, I wish that this more laid back and meandering commentary would've accompanied the full-screen version - instead of popping up on the widescreen side. What's cool is that Yelchin and Dennings reveal little tidbits of interest within their banter that we actually care to learn, but the film nerd in me still leaves a shade dissatisfied.

Spiral Beach "Voodoo" Music Video (On WS side):
Considering that the band performed in the film, and that the performance footage occurs during the shoot for a portion of the movie, this is essentially an assortment of clips from Charlie Bartlett set to the aforementioned song.

Audio Commentary with Director Poll and Writer Gustin Nash (On FS Side):
Taking a more traditional turn, Poll and Nash discuss the history of the film, the continuity, and some of the power behind the humor. It's interesting to hear how the pair of them adapted to the scenery, especially around the Bartlett estate, as well as their indecisiveness for some of the dialogue and props used in the film. This commentary is much more enjoyable for film lovers and is a true shame that it isn't included on the same side as the film presented in its original aspect ratio.

Restroom Confessionals (On FS Side):
In home camera fashion, the stars and filmmakers of Charlie Bartlett get into character and have some fun poking at the bathroom conversations Charlie has in the film. It's a quick little diversion that pretty much adds nothing to the viewing experience.


Final Thoughts:

Though an enjoyable little film about the strain of popularity and being a modern-day teenager in a not-so-normal environment, Charlie Bartlett's comedic streak swings along with its lyrical meaningfulness regarding the need to reach out to others -- in good times and bad. Bartlett could've been a better crusader for such a point, but his poppy attitude works okay for the droll bubbliness that Jon Poll's picture generates. It's worth the price of admission for a Rental, though the supplemental material outside of the director / writer commentary lacks any intrigue. Give Charlie Bartlett a chance to charm you, because he very well might do a more thorough job on you than he did on me.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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