Like most wannabe heroes of the eager-to-please teen comedy, poor little rich boy Charlie Bartlett is charming and quirky. Too charming by half and not nearly quirky enough, as played by an artfully rumpled and wide-eyed Anton Yelchin. Blazered, briefcased, and blitzed, Charlie comes to us newly expelled from his ritzy private school, where he's been nursing his entrepreneurial skills and a bottomless hunger for love by laminating fake drivers' licenses for his classmates. Charlie Bartlett is the feature debut of Austin Powers' snappy film editor Jon Poll, so it is but a heartbeat cut till we meet our hero with his head down a toilet at the funky public school to which he has been dispatched by his desperate single mother (Hope Davis).
Whatever mild narrative freshness Charlie Bartlett has going for it — Charlie doesn't stay a nerd for long, and the mohawked meanie (a very good Tyler Hilton) who welcomes him by beating him to a pulp, is quickly revealed as a pussycat — is soon lost when the two go into business together supplying a delighted student body with prescription drugs recycled by Charlie from the pricey psychiatrists provided by his flummoxed mom. From here on the movie rakes industriously over the usual Troubled Youth talking points: insecure, over-medicated adolescents ill-served by crumbling high schools, a drug-happy medical establishment and — worst of all — by malfunctioning moms and dads sunk in their own hurts and losses. You'll meet no helicopter parents here: The kids may be far from all right, but their elders are pretty much checked out. Compared to their respective parents, Charlie and Susan (Kat Dennings), the red-lipped girl most likely to relieve Charlie of his virginity and help him find his better self, fairly bristle with mental health.
Davis provides some of the movie's most persuasive moments, intelligently underplaying Marilyn Bartlett, a well-meaning checkbook mom who washes down her own meds with a cheeky Chardonnay and treats her son as a replacement husband. But as Susan's father, who also happens to be the school's barely coping principal, Robert Downey Jr. uncharacteristically phones it in, mugging his way through barely differentiated expressions of stunned surprise and defeat. No actor should be made to say things like, "Don't make me regret that," but even without the uneven script by Gustin Nash, written while he toiled at the Burbank mall, post-USC film school, Downey seems muffled and barely present. Which may be why he's given a small riot to deal with and a gun to wave around in the hastily grafted-on third act, before we hear the tinkling sound of everything falling into wholesome place.
Like its anodyne hero, Charlie Bartlett wants to make mischief, but it wants even more to get a gold star. Though sprinkled with moments of actorly surprise — Dennings, who caught my attention when she played a similarly wry daughter in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, has an amused, sexy wit, and Mark Rendall is terrific as a suicidal dweeb — the movie is hobbled by its woozy inclusiveness. Every student is lovable and redeemable, right down to the cheerleader bewildered by her propensity for sleeping with the entire football team. And after a brief brush with the school of hard knocks, Charlie, too, turns to less damaging ways of achieving popularity.
As to the parents — well, let's just say the movie indulges the enduring fantasy of the young, that they can set their elders straight. That's okay, but notwithstanding the security cameras installed by a churlish schools inspector, Charlie Bartlett is a film woefully in need of a decent enemy and a good fight. Yes, I know, this is the point when hoary old critics start bitching about how the coming-of-age movie of today needs another Vietnam to wake it up politically and culturally, and blah blah blah. Charlie Bartlett isn't the kind of film you hold up against American Graffiti. But it sure could use a touch more Superbad.