There is a battle on between history and life. And one of those battlegrounds is at the movies. It is a storied fight between the little punk shit Bob Dylan and bearded, august Johannes Brahms. 1955 brought us Rebel Without a Cause which displayed what is truly at issue. Can a piece of art (an artifact) speak to teenagers and still be timeless? The history of cinema has proven the answer to be a resounding “yes.”
Nicholas Ray was one of the directors most admired by the French New Wave…particularly by Jean-Luc Godard. Wim Wenders would celebrate the brave auteur as he passed from one world to the next in Lightening Over Water (1980). But what is most enduring is the spirit Ray and other prescient filmmakers evinced–that spirit which lived on in John Hughes’ cult film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
That brings me to the film in question. When I first saw Charlie Bartlett I had a pretty unspectacular life. I had just seen Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and fallen in love with Kat Dennings. I had to see more. I even went so far as to buy The House Bunny as a new release…just to get a few more minutes of this enigmatic actress. Now that I have blown whatever street cred I had remaining as a film critic, I might as well fess up to having done a similar thing when I fell in love with Thora Birch after seeing Ghost World. Yes, I forked out to buy Dungeons & Dragons (2000) on VHS. Yikes!
When I first saw Charlie Bartlett, the teenage drama-comedy genre conventions struck me as mostly trite and hackneyed. In a word: hollow. But my reappraisal of this film couldn’t be more different from my first impression.
The world of art films tends to speak its own cinematic language on screen. At times, the overly-precious, self-conscious products come off as caricatures of better films. In Ghost World, a classic awaiting its proper place in film history, Terry Zwigoff perfectly frames this empty art film posturing by referring to a nonexistent picture called The Flower That Drank the Moon. It sums up the disconnect between the world of Cannes and the world at large. Want to see Godard’s new film Adieu au langage at your local movie theater? Good luck!
And so my assertion is this: Charlie Bartlett is a masterpiece. Is it as good as Ghost World? No. Is it as good as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist? Not to these eyes. But is it a classic which got swept unjustly into DVD cut-out bins? Yes. And here’s why.
Jon Poll kept a million pieces in balance. His direction, while not perfect, should be commended with the highest accolades. The screenplay by Gustin Nash goes a long way towards giving this film in a daunting genre a chance at being timeless. The fact that the movie grossed just under half of its budget (a $6 million loss) should be welcomed by MGM as a blessing. This film will be reborn in the history yet to be written.
Hope Davis gives a nuanced, touching performance as Charlie’s mother. Anton Yelchin, as Charlie, is beyond fantastic. It is a performance which requires multiple viewings to appreciate. Robert Downey, Jr. gives a real piece of his soul to this film which was unjustly overlooked by the world. Tyler Hilton manages to channel Adam Baldwin from another criminally underrated flick My Bodyguard (which just happened to feature Joan Cusack’s first substantive role).
Kat Dennings is remarkably good at such a young age. She manages to cheer the hearts of all of us who perhaps identify a little too much with Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall). Rendall is shockingly adept in his miniscule role.
Perhaps the funniest aspect of this review is that I am clinging lustily to a piece of nicotine gum as I write this. That’s just how life works. Though it only figures into Charlie Bartlett as a mini-MacGuffin, it sets up a pivotal scene. But nothing measures up to Downey and Yelchin by the poolside. What to do when life has gone to shit… A single father losing his teenage daughter… The overtones are almost right out of Knut Hamsun (though the subject matter be unrecognizably morphed).
Substance abuse is at the forefront of this film, yet it is alcohol which finally precipitates a climax. The emotional lift is brought via Dennings singing a song in the school play. It is delicate and honest. We have been made to relate to Downey’s struggle to find himself. He just wasn’t cut out to play “bad cop.” And that is the overarching crux: the bad cop (Downey) jealous of the good cop (Charlie). The wrong career can destroy you…and it does so from the inside out. It’s not worth the extra money.
But the most important role (and element) of this entire film? Dylan Taylor as Len Arbuckle. You see, Charlie rides the short bus to school. Bartlett is seemingly oblivious to the differences between the mentally and physically challenged and himself. Peas and carrots. Charlie Bartlett has a good heart…and an angel notices.