I think I may have figured out what happened to writer Gustin Nash, the first-time scribbler of the new film "Charlie Bartlett." Instead of playing classical music or reading great works of literature to him while in the womb, Mother Nash must have slapped the headphones on her belly and barraged poor baby with every teen misfit '80s movie ever made.
Nothing else would seem to explain the trite debacle that became "Charlie Bartlett." That, coupled with producers who were hungrily looking for the next indie charmer like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno," makes "Bartlett" seem like yet another pale copycat where "quirkiness" substitutes for imagination and fails to carry a film.
A cliche-stuffed cream puff filled with the John Hughes filmography and a dash of "Pump Up the Volume," "Charlie Bartlett" follows the smart-aleck adventures of the teen miscreant title character as his expulsions from various prep schools land him in that Dante's Inferno known as public high school.
As rich kid Charlie saunters in that first day with his preppy blazer and tie, we head down that well-traveled teen film highway, falling into every trope-filled pothole along the way.
We know Charlie will become an immediate target for abuse, but with that twinkle in his eye we also know that sassy Chuck will somehow prevail using his entrepreneurial wits and smirky sense of humor. He will win over the student body and wind up with the wise-beyond-her-years hottest girl in school.
After a few anarchistic pranks, such as getting his bully to pass out Ritalin at a school dance (one of the few semi-funny moments), Charlie, who is no stranger to psychiatry, hits on the moneymaking idea of becoming the pseudo school psychologist to the students. Evaluating their symptoms, he goes to his own doctor exhibiting the same troubles, and thus gets medication to dispense to his "patients." Along the way he attracts the attention of the suspicious principal and also his comely daughter. He becomes the most popular kid in school and heads for a showdown with the principal.
The basic premise of "Charlie Bartlett" could have been ripe ground for a pathos-filled revisionist teen flick, but it instead collapses under its stale dialogue and groan-inducing "emotional" moments. You can rarely mix "wink, wink" with "tear, tear" and come up with anything but "retch, retch."
The cast also proves to be a hit-or-miss affair. Young Anton Yelchin, promising enough in "Hearts in Atlantis," plays Charlie like Doogie Howser channeling Christian Slater. He quickly becomes cloying and viewers will be hard pressed not to want to get their hands around his throat by film's end. Considering he has to carry the film, his annoying voice and mannerisms are deadly.
Hope Davis as Charlie's dippy mother and Robert Downey Jr. as the principal with issues of his own turn in sincere performances much better than their paper-thin characters deserve.
Editor-turned-director Jon Poll brings such a ham fist to the proceedings that he should not quit his day job just yet.
The most puzzling thing about "Charlie Bartlett" is its R rating; it's a relatively squeaky clean affair. It seems the best audience for "Charlie Bartlett" would be nondiscriminating 14-year-olds living under rocks. Adults will find its mixed-message drug themes and lackadaisical view of teen sex troubling, while older teens will find it unrealistic and too precious.