Friday, February 22, 2008

Another teen learns a life lesson

Summary: A smart teen comedy and another helping of John Sayles

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but "Charlie Bartlett" has been described as a "thinking man's teen comedy." Too many teen movies over too many years made me skeptical about whether "Charlie Bartlett" would be as "fresh" as promised, but I went to see it anyway. The reason: to watch Robert Downey Jr. play a high school principal concerned about the distribution of drugs in his school.

OK, that's a cynical take on my part. Downey's a terrific actor and his personal background -- drugs and jail -- should have no bearing on the roles he plays, but I'm too much of a news sleaze not to take reality into account. So off I went to see a teen comedy that's supposed to be an "intelligent" addition to a genre known mostly for dopey humor.

As often happens, the hype was too much. "Charlie Bartlett" doesn't descend into teen-comedy hell as it evokes memories of more original work such as "Rushmore," but it's no little gem, either. It also took me half the picture to make up my mind about Anton Yelchin, who plays the title character, a rich kid whose mother (Hope Davis) puts him in public school after he's kicked out of the last in a long string of prep schools. Yelchin ("Alpha Dog") ultimately finds ways to make us care about a kid who's way too glib, and his scenes with Davis -- a caring mother with few parental skills -- have a nice vibe about them.

At first it looks as if "Charlie Bartlett'' will follow a fish-out-of-water formula. Still wearing his preppie blazer, Charlie shows up at Western Summit High School. He quickly learns that his upper-crust exterior (his mom has the kind of money that allows Charlie to live in a mansion and own a chauffeur-driven Rolls) isn't going to play well with the school's tough guys, especially with Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton), a particularly aggressive thug.

Charlie, however, is not easily defeated. When the family shrink puts him on Ritalin, Charlie quickly realizes that there's money in prescriptions. He turns emotional difficulty into entrepreneurial triumph, forming a partnership with Hilton's Murphy -- who has been making Charlie's life a living hell -- and begins selling drugs. Charlie's no ordinary dealer; he accumulates his stash of prescription drugs by visiting a variety of shrinks and spewing pre-digested symptoms. He then sets up shop in the boy's lavatory, offering counseling and medication to his fellow students. Charlie rises to the top of the school popularity chart as the pusher man who really cares about his customers.

By this time, you may have noticed that I haven't yet gotten around to Downey, who mostly wanders the movie's fringes. As it turns out, Downey's Principal Gardener is a fairly shabby authority figure. His wife has left him, and he's made friends with the bottle. The school superintendent has him on a short leash, and he worries about his daughter Susan (Kate Dennings), who's a student at Western Summit, as well as Charlie's blossoming love interest.

When the movie gets around to its serious side, director Jon Poll does less well. What? You thought there'd be no serious side. No such luck. Charlie can't go on dispensing drugs and practicing amateur psychiatry without penalty, and the script sets about teaching him a chastening lesson.

Downey does a good job in a downbeat role that doesn't quite fit into the film's comic fabric. He was great as a skeptical reporter in "Zodiac," and he continues to prove that he's an actor with rage and an undiminished sense of daring. And there's one scene in "Charlie Bartlett'' -- it involves whiskey and a gun -- that allows Downey to dance along a dangerous edge. It probably doesn't belong in this movie, but it reminds you of what Downey can do -- even in a mildly pleasing teen comedy that's not quite as inventive as it might have been.


John Sayles' last movie, the Denver-based "Silver City," was a disaster that left Sayles with nowhere to go but up. And up he goes in "Honeydripper," a movie set in segregated Alabama during the 1950s.

The story takes place at the time when the blues were giving way to rock 'n' roll, and juke boxes were pushing live music onto the unemployment line. Sayles' builds the story around Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano player who's trying to maintain control of the Honeydripper, a ramshackle nightclub. Purvis' pal Maceo (Charles Dutton) offers support.

To save his club, Purvis arranges for a legendary guitarist -- Guitar Sam -- to play a one-night gig at the club. When a wandering young guitarist (Gary Clark Jr.) shows up, it's a sure bet that he, too, will play a role in saving the club. The movie's punches are slow in arriving, but they're all pretty much telegraphed.

My major complaint about "Honeydripper" has to do with the way Sayles extends scenes and sequences. I kept thinking that the movie's pacing -- languid to dull -- needed a swift kick in the pants, but "Honeydripper's" a step in the right direction for Sayles, whose commitment to capturing the many flavors of American life remains both praiseworthy and unmatched.

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