Remember how all of Ferris Bueller’s schoolmates loved him? Ferris’ popularity transcended cliques and made the entire high school class structure obsolete.
Such universal acceptance was a nice idea during the uptight ’80s, and "Ferris Bueller" was just one of John Hughes’ utopian visions of coming of age in the American high school.
Well, what if Ferris became popular by holding psychotherapy sessions in the boys restroom, then recklessly prescribing various prescription medications to his classmates? And what if he got those meds by stealing them from his over-medicated mother and by faking symptoms to real psychiatrists to trick them into writing prescription slips?
Welcome to the world of "Charlie Bartlett."
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a spoiled rich kid who has been kicked out of so many private schools his mother (Hope Davis) sends him to a public school. To Charlie, being liked is the only thing in life that matters, so he essentially becomes a drug dealer disguised as a psychiatrist in order to win friends and influence people.
The movie makes jokes about kids getting high on Ritalin (according to this movie, Ritalin can make kids act like they’re on PCP), and they even play the theme from "Superfly" when the dealing kicks into high gear.
Let’s face it, Ferris Bueller was plenty narcissistic and a glutton for attention, but he also had a joy for life that was likeable for audiences and infectious among his fellow high schoolers.
Charlie is self-centered and pathetically hungry for validation. Hooray, let’s idolize him.
Charlie’s little scheme eventually goes wrong, of course, and the movie finally takes a more responsible stance on teen drug abuse. Along the way, Charlie also falls in love with Susan (Kat Dennings), battles with her father (Robert Downey Jr.) and fixes everyone’s character flaws except for his own egotism.
The movie treads similar ground as "Rushmore" (in fact, the opening sequence is a shameless rip-off of that vastly superior Wes Anderson film) and many other teen movies (it also takes a big stab at "High School Musical" via an Ashley Tisdale look-alike who has slept with most of the football team).
Davis’ spot-on performance as Charlie’s comfortably numb mother is wasted on this film. Dennings is destined to star in countless teenage boy fantasies, but she should probably go beg Judd Apatow for a role in another of his films. Downey Jr. draws on his extensive real-life experiences to play an alcoholic principal. And even though Yelchin is a charming little fellow (he does deliver one genuinely hilarious monologue), Charlie doesn’t deserve popularity among his onscreen chums or sympathy from us viewers.
None of them can save this sinking ship.
This strikes me as a movie that presumes to understand teenagers but gets it all wrong. It exploits rather than sympathizes with teens, just like its title character.
Then again, I don’t presume to understand life as a teenager in 2008, either. So don’t trust me, trust the numbers. Box office revenue can’t tell us everything, but "Charlie Bartlett" didn’t crack the top 10 this week, and it earned less than both "Juno," which was released almost three months ago, and "Witless Protection," the latest nonsense from Larry the Cable Guy.
Perhaps that’s a sign that teenagers are smarter than the makers of "Charlie Bartlett" seem to think they are.