Without even bothering to rearrange the furniture, the wan comedy Charlie Bartlett lifts its scenario straight out of Rushmore: A frighteningly self-assured teenager gets expelled from private school, shows up at an ethnically diverse public school in his formal blue blazer, and eventually wins over his skeptical new classmates through sheer force of personality. Yet the differences between Charlie Bartlett and Rushmore's Max Fischer—and, by extension, between Charlie Bartlett and Rushmore—tell the story. The grand, infectious creative vision that drives Rushmore's hero masks genuine vulnerability; his wooing of a teacher twice his age may be misplaced whimsy, but the feelings are real. By contrast, Anton Yelchin's blue-blooded troublemaker in Charlie Bartlett seems thoughtless and mechanical in his rebellion, even though he's dealing with a father in jail for tax evasion and a mother (Hope Davis) wound tight as piano wire. Yelchin plays him as a weirdo with an oddly mirthless grin, like a bad seed who somehow slipped into adolescence without being exorcised first.
Booted from his latest private-school perch for running a fake-ID operation, Yelchin looks alien to the plebes at his new school, but like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, he's confident that they'll conform to his way of doing things, not vice versa. After a trip to the family's personal psychiatrist earns him a bottomless prescription to Ritalin, Yelchin's entrepreneurial spirit kicks in, and he hatches a plan to sell the drug to kids looking for an easy high. With help from the school bully (Tyler Hilton), his business expands into a broad range of pharmaceuticals, and he turns the school bathroom into an amateur counseling office and pharmacy. As he quickly becomes an almost messianic figure on campus, principal Robert Downey Jr. grows concerned, doubly so once Yelchin and Downey's daughter (Kat Dennings) start dating.
Charlie Bartlett panders to the notion that adults don't understand kids, so they overmedicate them or surround them with surveillance cameras to keep them in line. Yelchin is their Ferris Bueller—and Downey Jr. the world's friendliest Mr. Rooney—yet it's hard to believe that they would feel comfortable talking to him, because his arch manner and elite social class put him at such a marked distance. Watching Charlie Bartlett only makes Wes Anderson's work seem more accomplished by comparison, because it underscores that thin line separating the agreeably fanciful from the overbearingly precious. Or rather, the difference between an inspired young visionary and a kid who deserves every swirlie he's got coming to him.