Sunday, March 2, 2008

Charlie Barltett

How many cliches can we fit into one movie? Let's see, the bully who turns out to be a good guy? the gothic theater girl? the heart-to-heart/make-out in the convertible? the football player who wants to be an artist? The over medicating psychiatrist? The dead dad who's actually in jail? The bathroom smoking and beatings? I could honestly fill this entire column with them. I'm not sure if these are conscious throwbacks and homages to the high-school movie genre, or if it is truly a complete lack of creativity. Considering some of the dark wit that is found in here, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's intentional.

The titular character is played by Anton Yelchin, who bared a strikingly resemblance to Ferris Bueller era Matthew Broderick. The only difference is that Bartlett's shenanigans stem from some depressing and dark places. No doubt Bueller also had these tendencies, they just weren't explored as much in the 80's feel-good comedy. Bartlett instead follows in the newer trend of the Andersons, and the Baumbachs, and the Mike White's of portraying funny as sad. These movies strike an obvious chord with viewers, because everyday life is both funny and sad. Unfortunately it's a vibe that's almost being done to death. When the same names keep popping up as references when talking about these movies, it's time for something new.

The main plot is perhaps the biggest cliche of all. A rich boy from a broken family gets kicked out of private school and is forced to attend public. He finds that his coat and tie, and attache case are not the uniform of choice, and quickly winds up on the wrong end of a bully. It's not long, however, before he uses his wit to turn his situation around. In his quest for friends he opens a sort of psychiatric clinic in the bathroom, listening to people's problems and "prescribing" medicine he himself was prescribed by his psychiatrist. He becomes the most popular guy in school, and hooks up with Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings) the daughter of the principal (Robert Downy Jr., but more on him later).

The themes in this movie are mostly positive, but they're kind of all over the place. The most obvious theme is the commentary on the over medication of today's society. Bartlett's psychiatrist prescribes pills for ailments he clearly doesn't have. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly makes its point. The generation gap is another theme touched on. This is shown most clearly between Gardner and her father. He was the most interesting character for me, struggling between being a principal and a father, and dealing with his own unsavory past. I wish the movie hadn't portrayed him quite as negatively as it had, because I found myself feeling sorry for him. Finally, the most important over-branching theme is the idea that we're all unique. Unfortunately with Bartlett's popularity, this idea gets lost on those who really need it, and the movie takes a darker turn.

The acting was very strong (though Dennings at times seemed to just be reciting those cliches). And the dynamic between Yelchin and Downy was great. The movie tried to cover too much in its message, but masked all of it under the idea that everybody already knows- high-school sucks. The movie does have some problems with the occasional stray scene or plot-line. (the rebellion against security cameras in a students' only cabin on campus seemed a bit absurd. In today's violent culture I can't imagine them not having security cameras). But I it didn't detracted from the over-all story too much. It's not legendary, but good for the time being.


No comments: