Being Charlie: Semi-Charmed Life, by David Bax
After just a few minutes of Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie, by the time one young man has thrown a rock through the stained glass window of a rehab facility’s chapel (in slow motion!) and another has snorted a line of cocaine off of his own graduation photo, it’s clear that the film belongs to the “addiction/recovery” genre. And make no mistake, after The Lost Weekend, The Man with the Golden Arm, Leaving Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream, Flight and many more, this has become its own genre, complete with its own familiar tropes and predictable beats. In no way does that mean it’s no longer possible to make a good movie on this subject. But Being Charlie, despite having its heart in the right place, just isn’t that movie.
Nick Robinson plays the young man of the title, an addict and high school dropout from ritzy Bel Air whose costly rehab/relapse cycle has nearly destroyed his relationship with his parents, played by Susan Misner (The Americans) and Cary Elwes, the latter portraying famous actor now running for political office. After Charlie gets shuttled off to yet another in-patient retreat—as much for his own good as to keep him out of the way of his dad’s campaign—he starts off the insufferable smartass and then, well, he keeps doing that but he does finally become serious about being sober, partially thanks to a new romance with a fellow resident, Eva (Morgan Saylor from Homeland).
One of Charlie’s biggest problems, other than his addiction, is that he’s a bit of an asshole. One of Being Charlie‘s biggest problems is that it doesn’t seem to understand this. His self-centered, casual cruelty remains unaddressed, even when he’s sober. Charlie and his enabler friend (Devon Bostick) make offhanded remarks about “ugly chicks” and Charlie repeatedly cracks fat jokes about one of his female counselors throughout treatment. Speaking of jokes, the less said about Charlie’s cringeworthy ambitions of stand-up comedy, the better.
Reiner’s own experiences as a father to a son with substance abuse issues are an influence on the film. This is most clear in the fact that the parents are often more interesting characters than our nominal protagonist. Misner is heartbreakingly relatable as someone whose love makes her permissive but never stupid or manipulated. Elwes gives his best performance since maybe Peter Bogdonavich’s The Cat’s Meow as conflicted father who himself may not even know if his tough love stems from a true compassion for his son or from a desire to protect his public image.
As with much of Reiner’s work since the turn of the century (like The Magic of Belle Isle or Alex & Emma), Being Charlie is marked by an overriding, bland competency. There are few directorial choices (other than maybe the aforementioned slow motion) that could be described as “wrong” or “bad.” But there’s also nothing that stands out as particularly good or inspired. For a story that is so personal to him, there’s very little of Reiner to be found here.
Then again, maybe he’s just too close to it. Perhaps, in yearning to find a solution to a real life concern, he made a film that is far too pat and simple in its conclusions about Charlie and his demons. Maybe it’s comforting to reduce addiction to an easily addressed issue of layman’s psychology. But it doesn’t make for good drama.