A lot of teenage comedies have gone into the nation’s landfills since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the basic impulse remains the same — the thrill of putting one over on the man, in high school or wherever. Charlie Bartlett, hero of writer Gustin Nash and director Jon Poll’s comedy of the same name, has his Ferris thing working perfectly, with a few 2008 wrinkles.
Like the John Hughes/Matthew Broderick original, Charlie (played by Anton Yelchin) is, let’s face it, a privileged suburban brat. Not satisfied living in a Connecticut mansion with his love-starved, pill-popping mother (Hope Davis; Charlie’s dad is in prison for tax evasion) and getting house calls from the family shrink, Charlie is first glimpsed starting out at the local public high school after being expelled by numerous private schools. He makes the mistake of wearing a coat and tie the first day, takes a beating from a stoner named Murph (Tyler Hilton), and generally comes across like a dorky junior corporate lawyer. But Charlie is a quick study — he makes a few adjustments and soon has the entire student body eating out of his hand. The adjustments are called Ritalin, Xanax, Zoloft, and Prozac.
With the help of his new business associate Murph, the excessively glib Charlie sets up his own psychiatry practice in the boys’ restroom, complete with prescription meds he gets from his own easygoing doctor. This leads to unprecedented popularity as a student leader, plenty of money, and the admiration of the one intelligent girl in the school, Susan (Kat Dennings), daughter of the principal (Robert Downey Jr.). But of course there are a few life lessons to be learned before Charlie goes on to eventually become a hedge fund trader or a best-selling author. Like all upscale high-school hustlers in Hollywood youth-market movies, he needs to develop at least a smattering of empathy for those around him.
Not everyone is as fortunate as Charlie. We feel sorry for poor Murph the bully, too insecure to be anything but a menacing goon. Then there’s Kip (Mark Rendall), a needy fellow outcast (“No one knows I exist”) whom Charlie takes in as another business partner. Meatier still are the bright but emotionally undernourished Susan and her dad the principal, Charlie’s putative adversary. No Jeffrey Jones bumbling bureaucrat here. Casting Downey Jr. as a conflicted authority figure who seeks solace in alcohol and plays with toy boats seems the most natural choice in the world — but few filmmakers before now have taken advantage of Downey’s real-life history of weakness in such a frank, disarming manner. The principal delivers a drug lecture to Charlie, and we can almost hear the cell doors clank in the background. Everything else in the frame melts away when Downey appears onscreen. He’s one of the best in the business, and Kat Dennings, as Susan, takes a major step forward after her role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Screenwriter Nash and director Poll — a former film editor from the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series — let Charlie off the hook with one simple line, “I’m just a kid.” Uh-huh. So were the Enron boys, once. Entrepreneurial Charlie is a prime example of how Americans like to view themselves. As the saying goes, even a kid who has all the advantages can overcome that and become a good guy. But our money is on the principal (he has no given name in the film) and his daughter. Damaged goods have character.
Is it too much to ask for procedural thrillers like Vantage Point to connect all their dots before the closing credits? For about half its running time, director Pete Travis’ third feature film provides all the helter-skelter action and zig-zag plotting we’d naturally expect from an account of the assassination by terrorists of the US president — here named Ashton — in front of a semi-hostile outdoor crowd in the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca, Spain. But as the twists and turns accumulate, so does the incredibility factor. Memo to first-time screenwriter Barry L. Levy: Neither Tom Clancy (whose Rainbow Six Levy has adapted) nor John Grisham would allow such dangling story elements, and neither should you.
I’ll try not to spoil the story, other than to say that not everything about President Ashton’s demise is what it appears to be. Mixed into the seething crowd on hand for the anti-terrorism conference in Salamanca (actually shot in Mexico City) are a typical spy-boiler bunch of people with fuzzy motives: Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox), a local cop named Enrique (Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega), a young woman of questionable allegiances named Veronica (Israeli actor Ayelet Zurer), and a couple of shadowy guys called Javier and Suarez (Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez and Frenchman Saïd Taghmaoui, respectively). The only character we’re relatively sure about, aside from a TV producer played in cameo by Sigourney Weaver and a little girl with an ice cream cone, is an American tourist named Howard Lewis (confused everyman Forest Whitaker), who captures some incriminating details on his camcorder.
Manchester, UK native Travis directed Omagh, a tense 1998 political docudrama that painstakingly backgrounded an actual terrorist attack in the market square of the title town in Northern Ireland. Omagh and Vantage Point have in common a skeptical perspective on the uses of murder as a political weapon, and they share that skepticism with another Northern Irish historical film, Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. Filmmaker Greengrass parlayed that film’s edgy authority into such fast-lane productions as United 93 and two of the Bourne spy adventures. Travis may be trying to catch the same ride. The exciting chase scenes in Vantage Point certainly achieve a Bourne level of whiz-bang. Just don’t try to suss out what it all means, other than that you should never, ever believe what you see on TV.