Friday, October 4, 2013

58. Charlie Bartlett (2007)

Code-name: Frosh NRVS
(translation: Ferris Bueller: freshman year)

Director: Jon Poll
Type: Off-Beat High School Dramedy
Written by Gustin Nash (only other known credit- Youth in Revolt)
Great musical score by Christophe Beck
Prominently featured song: "If you want to sing out"- by Cat Stevens

Release details:
premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 3 months before theatrical release

Charlie Bartlett- Anton Yelchin (RIP 6/19/16)
Mrs. Marilyn Bartlett- Hope Davis
Susan Gardner- Kat Dennings
Principal Nathan Gardner- Robert Downey Jr.
Murphy Bivens -Tyler Hilton
Dr. Weathers- Stephen Young
Kip Cromwell- Mark Rendall
Superintendent Sedgewick- Derek McGarth
Dustin Lauderback- Jake Epstein


Program Notes

Be warned that I DO go long with this entry, but if you bear with me, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Thank You, RDJ and Thank You, YouTube

"Robert Downey Jr. freak-out scene" was among the suggested pages on my YouTube feedback after a night of watching his interviews on YouTube. I was so blown away that I did more research... and ultimately found the entire movie was uploaded there.

And for the record, I bought the DVD after watching it a couple times online.

Unexpected Pleasure

...Tread cautiously, there be spoilers afoot...

That was my initial reaction to this movie. Going strictly from my research into RDJ's resume, I didn't plan on "Charlie Bartlett" on the grounds that he played the antagonist. But after seeing that clip and hearing it being compared to "Ferris Bueller," my curiosity piqued.
2010 was a year full of great movies. Often times, those with the cleverest writing stayed with me the longest.

For me, "Charlie Bartlett" was a triumph both in writing and in the acting. Believe me, being as big a RDJ fangirl as I am, it says a lot that Anton Yelchin garnered just as much, if not more, of my attention. I came away believing Charlie Bartlett was one of those memorable, original characters I'd watched in a movie in a long time.

Let's get it straight from the get-go.
Charlie isn't perfect, beginning with his education.
We begin with him getting kicked out of, yet another, private school... for making fake ID's for the other students.

You have your private school stereotypes, pretentious young men who believe the world lives to serve them. Charlie is anything but that. His biggest goal in life, as is the case with the majority of teenagers, is achieving popularity. A recurring theme (or running joke, depending how you look at it) is him stating this and the adults in his life telling him there are more important things.
What I find most engaging about this guy is that he owns this role. His dialogue is quick-witted and lengthy, yet he breezes through it as if he'd been doing this for decades. While he has his flaws, he makes you root for him every time.

Something I noticed after seeing this a couple times:
There is an interesting contrast between how Charlie's character is developed compared to the story's antagonist, Nathan Gardner, who was recently promoted from history teacher to principal. Nathan's issues are more concrete and obvious whereas with Charlie, you have to pay attention or wait until later in the movie when the truth comes out in full.
Personally, it was an added bonus that their screen time was almost 50/50, so there wasn't a huge gap of time between scenes featuring either one of them.

In his first scene, we learn that Nathan (Robert Downey Jr.) is single father of teenage daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings). After setting himself up with a glass of alcohol (I have no idea if it's rum, scotch or something else), he checks his messages. One is from his estranged ex-wife, who believes he's not allowing Susan to contact her. The other is from the superintendent who insists being at the upcoming assembly tasked with introducing security cameras, seemingly under the impression the newbie principal can't handle a potential riot on his own.
Clearly the dude has stuff to be stressed about.

Charlie's first day goes as well as could be expected for the new kid.
The lows: getting a swirly and, later, beat up by the resident bully, Murphy Bivens... who I thought for sure was the guy who played Puck on "Glee"... the similarity was ridiculous!
The high: watch his audition for "Henry the V"... I won't spoil it, but I'll say he read for a role of the opposite sex and it is hilarious!

After coming home with the black eye (made me think of that scene from "The Karate Kid," without all the drama, lol), his mom calls Dr. Weathers. Supposedly the Bartletts have a psychiatrist on call. He talks about being bullied and also brings up the fact he's having trouble concentrating in class.
The solution: a prescription for Ritalin.
Charlie's reaction to the medication becomes extreme and, most likely, inaccurate... but nonetheless it's hilarious while raising some eyebrows..

Then Charlie has a "lightbulb" moment... to sell the remaining doses of his pills to the students while bringing in Murphy as a business partner. Let's just say it wouldn't be the last of Charlie's hair-brained schemes. Where his intentions are good, but he doesn't always think things through.

On the other side of things, Principal Gardner has to sift through his shenanigans, but he isn't exactly Ed Rooney, who made it his life's mission to bring Ferris Bueller to justice. He keeps things reasonable and level-headed for most of the picture. If punishments are handed out, it's after prodding from the superintendent..

The main plot kicks into high gear when Charlie befriends outcast Kip Crombwell, who asks if he can get hold of medication to help him.
This quickly blossoms into Charlie and Murphy's most profitable business. Charlie researches the symptoms, tells a host of psychiatrists he's experiencing them and he transfers the medication to his fellow students. Additionally, he holds "office hours" in the boys' bathroom where he gives advice.

If that didn't catch Principal Gardner's attention, Charlie's relationship with his daughter Susan would. Immediately after catching wind of it, he confronts Susan (unsuccessfully, I might add) and copes by drinking heavily. This is one of the most memorable scenes for me because of the song playing in the background... I don't know the name of it, but it really helps define how unhinged he is here.
But after he calms down a bit, he brings Charlie into his office at his next opportunity and gives him fair warning.

But the biggest controversy Charlie gets involved in is the additional of security cameras to the student center. One of Susan's friends, Henry Freemont, spends most of the movie campaigning for their removal. He insists on getting Charlie involved so they'll more likely to be heard.
Obviously, the superintendent sees this as a threat and pleads with Nathan to do something.
Personally, I think he takes it a little over the top. I mean, Charlie is the face of the movement, but it's not like he's personally working to make it happen. While the student strike ensues over this, Charlie doesn't actively participate and even says to Susan that he can understand where both sides are coming from.

Eventually, all hell does break loose.
Charlie and Nathan get into a confrontation. The scene is available on YouTube titled "what's in that pharmacy bag?"
Nathan is on edge, obviously, seeing Charlie give Susan this pharmacy bag and demands answers. One of two great intense scenes from Robert. The 2nd comes after the fall-out. Again, something else I recommend seeing because what is IN the bag isn't at all what he expected.

Then there's a riot at the school. Nathan loses his job and Charlie gets arrested on an assault charge (occurs in the previous scene mentioned above). Again, another great moment between Charlie and Nathan. Even as he's being hauled in cop car, Nathan locks eyes with Susan and Charlie... as if processing that his daughter chose her boyfriend over him.

The final part of the story arc happens on the premiere of the school play. Susan was cast as one of the leads and, hoping to do her a favor, Charlie goes to her house to convince her [now "disgraced"] dad to come.
Ultimately, the "freak-out" scene is Nathan "venting" (his latest "word of the day") while drunk and welding a fire arm.

Considering some of the crap that occurs in this movie, it's almost a miracle that none of the characters died or got severely injured.
Is it a little over the top in some places? Yes. But it wouldn't be the same movie without that little extra something, that adrenaline rush... especially that final climax.

Everything does work out and it would seem Charlie might make a living out of giving people advice... here's hoping he's learned how NOT to do it.

Notable Mentions

First, a few cameos from familiar faces:

Drake plays one of the students Charlie advises. His father is physically and verbally abuse.

Jake Epstein (who I knew from "The Zack Files" and others know from "Degrassi") plays the quarterback of the football team.

Six Degrees of Separation...Kevin Bacon... RDJ

On a number of occasions, I've felt compelled to follow up with certain actors on the basis they starred alongside Robert Downey Jr.
I know it sounds totally ridiculous, but every now and then, it works out AMAZINGLY.

To a lesser degree, I've sought out a few Anton Yelchin films since this. He was great in the "Fright Night" remake (it helped that his character was also called Charlie so I didn't lose the allusion that he IS this character). He was also good in "The Beaver" (Robert's connection to Mel Gibson was also behind that decision), and I'm still waiting to see the indie film "Like Crazy."

But... the biggest thing I got out of "Charlie Bartlett" was Kat Dennings.
I had seen her in "Raise Your Voice" with Hilary Duff, but she had a minor role as a reclusive pianist.
She played a small part in me wanting to see "Thor" (the larger part was he would be featured in "The Avengers").
Ultimately, if it wasn't for RDJ or this movie, I don't think I would have given "2 Broke Girls" a shot.

I saw the first 5 or so episodes online... now I just think Kat Dennings is freaking awesome in her own right. Her character, Max Black, is the type of girl I'd love to have as my best friend... but she does remind me a lot of my friend, Sam.
Coincidentally, Sam is a huge fan of "Charlie Bartlett" and when she befriended me in college, she dramatically changed my campus life almost the same way Max changed the life of Caroline Channing... a former rich girl who became broke because her dad was behind a Ponzi scheme.
But what I love most about Max is her dark sense of humor. Minus "the 7 words you can't say on television" and nudity, it comes off like a well-written R-rated movie. I was SHOCKED multiple times over those first episodes, how much she pushed the envelope... and I just couldn't get enough of it. To that day, that's still the case 8-)

Final Notes

Robert did this movie just before "Iron-Man" and is part of the reason I sometimes prefer his indie work to the blockbusters. Knowing me, there'll come a point when I'll address that in greater detail.:-P
It also is one of those rare occasions he plays a dad on screen, which is a nice personal touch, I think... even if Nathan Gardner isn't actually "dad of the year" material. When I heard he and his wife Susan were expecting their first baby together, I was hoping he'd have a girl because I wanted to see how he'd deal with a teenage daughter in real life.
Alas, that was not the case.


Robert and Susan had a daughter, Avri, a year or so after their son, Exton. So I still stand by my conviction- it'll be interesting to see him as a dad to a teenage daughter :P He'll probably be a push-over and Susan will be the stoic disciplinarian.

And I'm releasing and sending this post around at the news of Anton Yelchin's passing. I got a text from my friend Dave and found he'd died in a car accident.
2016 has been such a BAD year for passings. I'm still not completely over losing Prince. And Christina Grimmie (YouTube sensation and 3rd place finisher on Season 5 "The Voice") sent shockwaves through the music community with her death.

But this is just sad. Anton had a lot of talent and for it to be snuffed out so easily... the next "Star Trek" movie might see some additional revenue because it'll be his last role.

What I do know is that I'll be waiting this movie tomorrow to remember him.
The last time I saw it was New Year's Eve and I was seeing it by myself. The previous time, it was my first sick day in a couple years and it made me feel better. The time before, I saw it with my friends when I visited them on campus. Lots of good memories with that movie and half of them have just as much to do with Anton as RDJ.



Dan O. said...

Good review Jackie. It was a sweet little movie, however, it did rip-off plenty teenage-dramedies out there. Far better ones, to be exact.

Jackie B. said...

Thanks for the comment, Dan. It's always nice hearing from people who'd seen this movie, which I believe few have heard of.