‘Charlie Bartlett’ fails to be as big as it hopes

Two decades ago, Robert Downey Jr. could have played the lead role.



“Charlie Bartlett” would like to be “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the 21st century. I have seen “Ferris Bueller.” And you Mr. Bartlett, are no Ferris Bueller.

Granted, there are some similarities. Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a high school student who is too hip for the room. After being thrown out of a host of private schools, Bartlett ends up in (gasp!) public school. He wins over the student body with some cool psychobabble and a never-ending supply of prescription drugs.

His rise in popularity doesn’t escape the notice of the school principal (Robert Downey Jr.). The principal really sits up and takes notice when Bartlett starts dating his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings), who is too smug for the room.

Just like “Ferris Bueller,” this film by Jon Poll focuses on a popular student who wages a psychological war with his principal. Yelchin has the same kind of boyish charms that Matthew Broderick brought to Bueller. After that, the films go in completely different directions.

There was a mischievous fun to Bueller’s antics. He broke all the rules. But no one really got hurt.

Charlie Bartlett is an enabler. He buys popularity with the drugs that he sells. The choppy script by Gustin Nash tries to justify the actions with a few philanthropic actions by Bartlett. Nothing can move the film past the 800-pound gorilla: that the story hinges on excess use of prescription drugs.

The movie is at its best when Downey is on the screen. Here’s a guy who 20 years earlier would have been Charlie Bartlett. Now he must deal with the anxieties that adulthood brings.

There is one strangely voyeuristic moment when Downey’s character begins to talk about his serious addictions. Downey’s work in the film benefits from the actor’s turbulent personal life.

The basic problem with “Charlie Bartlett” is that it aspires to be grander than it could ever be. Stacked like firewood are storylines about an emotionally scarred mother, an absent father, shaky parental guidelines and the social maladies of American youth. Almost any movie would sag under the weight of that much material.

The reach for “Charlie Bartlett” should have been shortened. It would be a far more enjoyable and interesting film if it did not have to drag the lodestone of such emotional angst. That’s what made “Ferris Bueller’ such a righteous dude.

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