The film opens with CharlieÂ’s (Anton Yelchin) expulsion from a prestigious private school; this (naturally) forces him to enroll at a public school. Although this formula is exhausted, it is rife with comic as well as dramatic possibilities. However, the film never makes an attempt to separate itself from its predecessors. Bartlett antagonizes depressed Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) in a plethora of ways, dating his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) among others. Despite BartlettÂ’s many attempts to help the students of the school, he manages only to complicate everyoneÂ’s lives, especially Principal GardnerÂ’s. His mother Marilyn (Hope Davis) is of no use as she is heavily medicated and lives in a euphoric daze. All of these minor adaptations to the tried and tested formula (see Harold and Maude or Ferris BuellerÂ’s Day Off) do not revamp the genre adequately and leave the viewer with a taste of nostalgia and apathy.
The inherent complication that comes with revamping this type of genre is maintaining an edginess while trying to appeal to the masses. When released, Hal AshbyÂ’s Harold and Maude contained a genuine edge for a romantic comedy, the romance in question was between two people around sixty years apart and the film dealt with the question of suicide throughout. In Charlie Bartlett, by trying to appeal to a broad audience, it isolates the individual; by trying to be two things, it does not succeed in being one. His character is especially frustrating; there is no way for the viewer to understand or relate to him, as he is both too strange and too vague. This sort of character would be interesting to explore in a television series but in a mere ninety minutes we are not given enough to maintain interest. Bartlett himself is a microcosm for the filmÂ’s ails; he is everyman, and so, no one.