'Charlie's' no charmer

The ads for "Charlie Bartlett" position its title character as a kind of teen folk hero, like "Juno."

And if Juno weren't a girl, weren't pregnant, weren't a plucky middle-class kid, and weren't the least bit likable, she might indeed be Charlie Bartlett.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a kid who has a tough time in high school because he hails from the RIGHT side of the tracks. He lives in a sprawling mansion with dotty mom (Hope Davis) - he plays jazz piano for her, they sing torch songs together, he gets rides to private school in a vintage Mercedes limo.

The movie, in other words, gives you about 50 reasons to dislike the kid before the end of the first reel.

Of course, opinions vary. A preview audience laughed at everything Charlie said or did, even when it wasn't meant to be funny. And early reviews find Yelchin irresistible in the role of high school celebrity, a kind of Ferris Bueller for the Paris Hilton age.

I resisted. I remained uncharmed by Charlie even as the movie rolled out its premise - a private school expels Charlie, who is forced to attend public school (someone has seen "Rushmore"), where he ingratiates himself by functioning as an informal psychiatrist (he takes sessions in the lavatory) and prescribing drugs (acquired from an upper-crusty Dr. Feelgood) as he sees fit.

I felt as though "Charlie Bartlett" kept stipulating that Charlie was an inspirational, popular figure, without earning it through dramatization. The movie is unevenly directed, with stiffly mounted scenes and tonal shifts between offhand comedy and ham-fisted drama.

There's a dark secret behind Charlie's need for approval, one that stems from unresolved feelings centered on his absent father.

A father substitute arrives in the form of Robert Downey Jr. playing a principal who tries to manage Charlie's indiscretions while attempting to harness his potential.

This relationship is complicated when Charlie falls for the daughter (Kat Dennings) of the principal, who is wary of Charlie. For good reason, it turns out. Charlie's idea of being charming is to have sex with the girl, then run half naked into a room full of her peers and scream that he's just lost his virginity.

We wonder if some sort of whiz-bang ending might pull all of this together, but we get histrionics - a drunken man firing a gun in the air, punches thrown for no reason, police intervention.

And, finally, I didn't find many laughs in the idea of Bartlett providing prescription drugs to kids. But maybe it's funnier to people who haven't just written Heath Ledger's obit. *

Produced by David Permut, Barron Kidd, Jay Roach, Sidney Kimmel, directed by Jon Poll, written by Gustin Nash, music by Christophe Beck, distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.