Anton Yelchin is poised for good things, maybe great things. The young actor, startling in his performance as an eager-to-please kid brother in last year's "Alpha Dog," brings the same air of breezy charm to his titular character Charlie Bartlett, a too-crafty-for-his-own-good high school kid constantly running afoul of adults while he dazzles his contemporaries. Think of Charlie as Ferris Bueller salted with Lloyd Dobler.
A sly school-days comic-drama, the kind of confection often overlooked in the era of "American Pie" and "Superbad," would be the perfect launching pad for an actor like Yelchin. Alas, he will have to wait to become the next John Cusack or Matthew Broderick. "Charlie Bartlett" is only sly in terms of its attempts to pander. Fatuously glib, it might even make Yelchin miss out on being as successful as Robert Downey Jr., who, in a casting decision perhaps intended to be ironic, plays Charlie's less-than-zero principal, a dark and brooding Mr. Rooney with a drinking habit and a vivacious daughter he wants to keep out of his precocious new student's arms.
Charlie's popularity with his contemporaries springs from his aptitude for illegal activities, which naturally antagonizes authority types. The movie sets up this conflict for an end game that will bring everyone involved into a greater understanding of each other and themselves, a situation that starts out feeling contrived and ends up falling flat. The basic problem is that the movie isn't as precocious as its character. Charlie is a slacker mastermind. The movie is just a slacker, eager to find the easiest laugh or emotion.
You don't have to wait long for it to act up. Our introduction to Charlie arrives during his latest administrative run-in, with a private school administrator explaining to his mother why they need to let him go. Charlie was caught making fake IDs for his fellow students. "At least they look convincing," the mother notes in a non sequitur typical of the movie's tentative stabs at humor. Cue administrator dumping a boxful of IDs on the table.
Always trying to one-up itself, "Charlie Bartlett" is the kind of odd contemporary movie that wants to be laughed at and taken seriously, but without offering more than mild gags and contrived danger. So Charlie, despite the fact that he's supposed to be really smart, shows up at his first day at public school dressed in his private school gear, in the back of the family limousine. Beaten up for his transgression, a trip to the psychiatrist provides the enterprising youngster with a confluence of realizations: Psychotropic medication is easily dispensed, and adults, no matter how high their degrees, are easily fooled.
I probably don't have to tell you what follows. A ridiculous development -- Charlie becomes the school's unofficial shrink is followed by a serious one Charlie's antics put personal freedom and privacy at the school in jeopardy. Though it practically swims in BS 70 percent of the time, "Bartlett" has some serious thoughts on its mind. At least it thinks so. Charlie has a loopy mom (Hope Davis) and a dad in jail for tax evasion; but how many kids are going to care about absentee parents, especially considering Charlie is baller rich?
Topping its many faults, the movie simply never convinces as a story about teenagers. With characters that are either too vague or too extraordinary, the situations they fall into are too safe and mild to get very far with the vast majority of young people. And yet somehow the producers managed to fumble the rating, too, saddling the picture with an R. While the older kids won't want to see the movie, younger, less jaded ones won't always be able to.
It's sad to think teen screen characters are actually devolving, but though movies like "Say Anything" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" might appear juvenile to some, they stress character and motivation, something movies like "Charlie Bartlett" don't even seem to be aware of. The movie comes across like a smug kid with his hastily forged term paper. You, the recipient, will simply roll your eyes in private disbelief. (R) 97 min. S