Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. This month, Christopher M. Jones looks back at 2007’s Charlie Bartlett, which starred Anton Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr but was a critical and commercial failure. Nonetheless, it offered a glimpse at Yelchin’s growing talent, and Jones argues it was the best ’80s movie the ’80s never saw.
Last month we lost Anton Yelchin, one of the most promising young actors of his generation. Like Robert Pattinson and Andrew Garfield, he belonged to a school of boyish, charismatic men that could delight audiences in buoyant popcorn movies while also delivering more nuanced and sophisticated performances on the margins of the film industry. This was a young man who could serve not only as a beacon of light and charm in a sometimes overly dismal Star Trek franchise but also hold his own against (and debatably outperform) both Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive. At only 27, it’s heartbreaking to think about the kind of career he might have had even a year or two from now.
Still, the best way to honor a fallen actor is to speak of the greatness of their work, not grouse about how much greater it could have been. And while he’d grown in esteem and had more technically impressive performances since, I can’t help but think of 2007’s Charlie Bartlett as his finest moment, the height of his charm and warmth which helped cement the quality of a film that John Hughes himself would have been proud to call his own.
There’s a lot to like about Charlie Bartlett. For one, Drake has a very minor speaking role in it. For another, it’s fun as hell. The film is about the titular Charlie Bartlett, an ADD-addled child of privilege who sets up a combination therapist’s office/Ritalin cartel in his high school bathroom. Like the drugs it revolves around, Charlie Bartlett can best be described as a Disney Channel Original Movie on amphetamines: it’s a loud, colorful film with broad characters and even broader performances, set in a public high school that seems to have the resources of Delaware’s entire GDP. Realism is scant in this film’s world, but charm runs high.
At its base, it’s easy to compare Charlie Bartlett to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because when broken down they revolve around the same basic premise: Rich Kid Fucks Around and Has a Blast. But the big difference rests in the heart of their titular characters: Bueller as portrayed by Matthew Broderick is something of an enfant terrible who is mainly concerned with his own gratification, not going out of his way to cause trouble but not concerning himself with the damage his antics might cause, either. Yelchin’s Charlie Bartlett, however, is a veritable humanitarian: he’s out to save the world one prescription at a time. Even though he’s initially rejected by his peers as a clueless rich boy, he cares about their welfare unconditionally; he makes friends with the bullies, fights for his fellows’ student rights, and becomes genuinely heartbroken and penitent when he finds out his drug program has done serious harm to one of his friends. Modern comedy protagonists trend towards cynicism, but Charlie Bartlett is the rare character who’s willing to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders with an uncrackable grin on his face to boot.
This movie might not have worked with a different actor–it easily could have come off as phony or disingenuous—but in the hands of Anton Yelchin the film practically beams with charm and warmth, and his performance frequently drives the movie safely over unsteady ground. When he declares to a crowd of his peers that he is “no longer a virgin!” it might have come off as boorish, but Yelchin brings a twinkling sincerity to the line and saves the scene; when he reflexively punches the high school principle/his girlfriend’s father (a character played with hilarious petulance by Robert Downey, Jr., with whom Yelchin has consistently excellent chemistry), it’s the genuine, flustered remorse of his bumbling apology that keeps the character from being lowered in the audience’s eyes.
Make no mistake: subtle as they might be, these are not insignificant details. A good teen movie lives and dies on the tightrope it walks between angst, affability, reality and fantasy, and if the lead or leads don’t carry those same qualities in perfect balance then the whole film is sunk. In this regard, Anton Yelchin gives a performance to rival or even surpass anything the Brat Pack ever put to film. He’s a downright joy to watch in Charlie Bartlett, spunky and vulnerable and brimming with good natured one-liners and anecdotes. Only 17 years old at the time of the film’s release, Yelchin was already portraying his characters with an honesty and depth of humanity that famous actors twice his age, performing in ostensibly far more vital and culturally impactful work, struggle with to this day.
Charlie Bartlett was a total bust upon its 2008 debut, earning less than half its budget at the box office and carrying an unenviable 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I think it would be a big mistake to let the numbers speak for this film. Anton Yelchin had a glow about him even in his darkest work, and with Charlie Bartlett he got the chance to let his natural warmth, good humor and charm shine uninhibited. It might not go down as the greatest movie he ever acted in, but I think it’s definitely the best one to remember him by.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.