March 12, 2008 -- High school comedies require a delicate balance of elements. Classics like “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” and “Election” (both, coincidentally, starring Matthew Broderick) are few and far between because they deftly combine romance, slapstick and pathos. “Charlie Bartlett” is not quite in that elite company, but it is close. It combines those comic, romantic and dramatic elements quite well. Bartlett, like Bueller, is a mythic figure. The story is not really believable, but it is compelling because the characters are so quirky and well-defined. Unlike those other two movies mentioned, the adults in this movie are not caricatures, they are fully developed human beings.
This movie reminded me a lot of “Rushmore” because it is about a prep school kid trying to get along at a regular high school, and it also involves a school play, which is pivotal in both films. The title character, wonderfully portrayed by Anton Yelchin of “Alpha Dog,” is a kid who just wants to be well liked in high school. After being kicked out of his umpteenth boarding school (for making fake I.D. cards) he is placed in a normal high school. There, he is promptly beaten up by the school bully, Murphy Bivens (played by Tyler Hilton of “Walk the Line”). Being a very clever kid, Charlie figures out a way to get Murphy on his side by going into a lucrative business with him selling prescription drugs in the school boys room. Charlie also dispenses psychiatric advice in the same room. Charlie sits in one bathroom stall, his patient in the next stall, sort of like a confessional booth. It turns out Charlie has a knack for figuring out other people's problems. He also uses his own years of psychoanalysis as experience. He repeats symptoms he has heard to his own psychiatrist, who then prescribes medications for him, which Charlie then passes along to those students at school who actually need them.
Charlie and Murphy are doing a booming drug business at school and Charlie has become the most popular kid in school, just what he always wanted. Of course it doesn't last. A student overdoses on medication provided by Charlie and he is suspended from school. The school principal (played by Robert Downey Jr. of “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”) is doubly upset with Charlie. He is not only disrupting the school, but Charlie is dating his daughter, Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings of “The 40 Year Old Virgin”). Principal Gardner, however, is no fool. He is aware of Charlie's potential and doesn't want to expel him, even though the school district superintendent says he must if he wants to keep his job. Principal Gardner, like Charlie, has his own demons to deal with, including a serious alcohol problem and depression. Principal Gardner also has some of the movie's funniest lines. Charlie learns about the principal's problems from Susan and he sees them first hand in a frightening scene.
The problem of abuse of prescription drugs is a real one and students in both grade school and high school do share prescription drugs with each other. To focus on the drugs in this movie, however, is to lose sight of the bigger picture. This movie is about more than the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs. It is about finding one's true path in life, as philosopher Joseph Campbell put it: “find your bliss.” Charlie wants to help people. He finds that he has the potential to be a good psychiatrist. Principal Gardner hates being a principal, but loves teaching. Murphy really wants to be an actor. The school's star quarterback wants to be a painter. Another student wants to be a playwright. Charlie helps all these people find their bliss. That is a wonderful thing. It is a lot more important than the film's drug message. This film rates a B.
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