Charlie Bartlett is no Ferris Bueller. Or Max Fischer (“Rushmore”). Heck, he’s not even Parker Lewis. And “Charlie Bartlett,” try though it might to make a splash in the smart-teen-movie genre, feels like little more than an amalgam of great moments from the John Hughes oeuvre as well as from “Thumbsucker,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “Over the Edge,” among others.
Anton Yelchin, looking like a fetal Ethan Hawke, is Charlie, who’s been kicked out of a series of prep schools. As the film opens, he’s getting expelled for running a fake I.D. operation out of his dorm room. Not for the money, mind you — the Bartlett family car is an old-school Mercedes limo — but for the popularity. Having run out of options, Charlie’s kooky mom (Hope Davis) enrolls him in the local public school.
While Charlie starts out as the campus pariah — wearing his prep-school uniform, à la “Rushmore,” probably wasn’t the greatest idea — he quickly becomes everyone’s pal by setting up therapy sessions in the boy’s bathroom. Not only does Charlie listen to these kids, he also dispenses the anti-anxiety meds that his family shrink is all too happy to prescribe to Charlie, once Charlie learns what symptoms to fake.
There’s an idea for a funny movie here about contemporary teens and their parents’ desire to medicate them for every little thing, but “Charlie Bartlett” veers from wacky to hectoring on a dime while having not much to say on the subject in the first place. (“Thumbsucker” treaded the same ground, with similarly disappointing results.) Making matters worse — and this could be the fault of either Yelchin’s performance or the script by Gustin Nash — Charlie himself is the least interesting character in the movie. The best scenes feature him as a sounding board to his fragile mother, to his increasingly exasperated high school principal (Robert Downey, Jr.) or even to his classmates; when Charlie takes center stage, however, it’s hard to care about this poor little rich boy.
The classmates, incidentally, represent an interesting mix of high school types, from the bully with anger issues (Tyler Hilton) to the kid no one remembers (Mark Rendall) to the principal’s daughter (Kat Dennings) who becomes Charlie’s girlfriend. (Here’s a tip to filmmakers wanting to cover up the fact that they shot their teen movie in Canada: Try to limit yourself to no more than one cast member of the Canuck high-school soap “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” In “Charlie Bartlett,” I counted three.)
Director Jon Poll keeps things moving at a reasonable clip, and the movie does showcase very strong performances by Davis and Downey. “Charlie Bartlett” makes for a pleasant sit, and it’s not exasperatingly stupid in the way so many comedies aimed at teens wind up being. Nonetheless, you won’t be able to escape the idea that you’ve seen the best this flick has to offer in other movies. And it was better the first time.