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.
With a diverse range extending from bubblegum early rock 'n' roll hits like "Splish Splash" to American pop standards like "Mack the Knife" to Vegas show-stoppers like "Hello Young Lovers" to self-penned war-protesting folk tunes like "Simple Song of Freedom " Darin certainly has a compelling story arc chasing fame and fortune from a young age because of a serious heart condition that makes an early demise inevitable. Darin manages to defy the fatal odds against him and emerges as a top-selling singing sensation and even an Oscar-nominated actor while his hard-driving never-say-die odyssey through celebrity includes romance with the gorgeous young matinee idol Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) and surprising revelations about his past. Yet like the title of one of his hits "More " nothing ever seems to be enough for the singer who must learn how to truly live in the midst of his seemingly packed life until he finally succumbs to his heart disease at the age of 37.
We know what you're thinking: didn't Bobby Darin hit it big in his early 20s? How the heck in his mid-forties is even Mr. Two-Time-Oscar-Winner going to pull that off? Well Spacey does and he doesn't. Sure he's too old to be literally believed as the early Darin but the film's clever framing sequence and fourth-wall-breaking techniques tell the story as though Darin is looking back at his life and "plugging in" the more mature version of Spacey-as-Darin throughout--and it helps that Darin is not as recognizable an icon to today's audiences as say Elvis or Sinatra. With that nifty feat accomplished Spacey is more than up to the task of capturing the singer's "I want it all yesterday" temperament as well as his distinctive vocals. Darin purists may have preferred that the film used the singer's actual tracks but given that Spacey insisted on singing the songs himself his vocal mimicry is as convincing as can be imagined. Bosworth (Win a Date With Tad
Hamilton) is as poodle-skirt-cute as Sandra Dee should be and adds a nice touch of Hollywood actress insecurity as well. However the vast age difference between Bosworth and Spacey is a tad creepy and their chemistry as both lovers and fighters doesn't really combust on screen. Supporting players Caroline Aaron and Bob Hoskins come close to stealing scenes even from the likes of Spacey--and that's as high a compliment as can be bestowed.
Even if you are a fan of Spacey or not his cinematic execution while not entirely razzle-dazzle in the non-musical sequences is quite competent making the most of the era's settings--especially old Hollywood and the lush lounge environs Darin prowled. Nods also go to the film conventions of the time. His deft direction combined with his always-engrossing performance manages to overcome and liven up the screenplay's often considerably lame dialogue. And those musical sequences! Whenever the story starts to meander Spacey cleverly slides in a 50s-style song-and-dance number or swinging lounge lizard set to goose up the proceedings.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.