Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.