Saturday, April 10, 2010

FILM REVIEW: The Education of Charlie Banks (2007)

In the 70s-set dramatic indie, The Education of Charlie Banks, a charming thug named Mick (Jason Ritter from "Joan of Arcadia" and "Parenthood") comes to terms with what he is and what he can be. And he does so after he meets a kid named Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg from Adventureland) through their mutual friend Danny (Chris Marquette from The Girl Next Door), a guy who skirts the line between his rich upbringing and his mischievous nature.

We soon learn that Danny's friends are on opposite sides of his spectrum. Charlie's timid, polite, and intelligent. Mick is temperamental, macho, and sadistic. He's a beast wrapped in human flesh. And in their first encounter Charlie learns this. He watched as he stomped on the faces of preppy jocks who dared to order him around. Charlie, being the good kid that he was, told the police and volunteered to testify to what he saw. But eventually, Danny unknowingly convinces him that Mick isn't a bad guy and he doesn't deserve to go to jail. So Charlie recants his account and refuses to testify. He spends the rest of his high school years avoiding Mick, but he and Danny remain best friends. They even go to college together and become roommates.

One day Mick shows up and refuses to leave, hoping to crash on one of their beds and hang out for a while. They suspect he's hiding out from the police, but they don't have the balls to question him. He inserts himself into their lives: befriends their friends, romances one of their girls, and even audits their classes. He's everywhere all the time, and Charlie can't escape him. He fears that Mick has come to settle the score, to stomp his head in for being a rat. But somewhere along the line, Mick gets comfortable. He stops seeing Charlie as an adversary, stops trying to rattle his cage, and starts to mimic him: wearing similar clothes, reading similar books, and even stealing his girl Mary (Eva Amurri from Saved!). It would be flattering, except no one wants to look at the devil and see themselves smiling back.

The final test of their newfound friendship was the confession. After Danny tells Mick that Charlie's in love with Mary, Charlie confesses that he was the one who ratted him out. Before Mick could react, Danny barrels in to tell everyone that the well-known, acid-influenced student they called Buzzy Tim was trying to commit suicide. Mick and Charlie immediately try to talk him down. But after Tim jumps and Charlie saves Mick from falling, you get the sense that Charlie has been absolved of his guilt and all is forgiven. It was like he jumped too. He committed suicide, and like Buzzy Tim, he didn't die. He was bruised, suffered a few fractures, but he was alive to tell the tale.

Once they came to terms with what just happened, Mick asks him, "What's a Deconstructionist?", referring to what Charlie said about Tim. Charlie's answer explains what Charlie has been doing all along:
"You take something apart and you see all of its threads, and you see that all of these threads have different meanings and you kind of examine how these meanings are imposed upon these threads. You kind of reveal the contradictions and inconsistencies, and you see that there's no one truth expressed by that thing—you see that there's no absolute truth."
Charlie has been deconstructing Mick. During their trip to Leo's lake house, he admitted in the narration that he wasn't afraid of Mick anymore. After examining Mick and pulling him apart, and seeing all of his different sides, he realized that there was no "one true" side to him. There was no "evil Mick." He was good and he was bad. He was inconsistent and unpredictable, and therefore it was unfair to judge him as a villain. He was whatever he wanted to be in that moment and whatever you allowed him to be, whether it was your enemy or your savior. That's why Charlie "jumped" and told the truth. He couldn't take the idea that there would be no absolute truth about Mick. He couldn't take the uncertainty…which is ironic.

Despite the fact that Mick's unpredictability agitated Charlie, he was just as indecisive. In a class discussion, Mary's best friend Nia (Gloria Votsis from "White Collar") said that most evil was done by people who never make up their minds to either be good or evil. Automatically, the viewer figures that the writer must be alluding to Mick, especially since he chimes in unexpectedly at the back of the class. But I think the person who is truly in limbo is Charlie. His indecisiveness causes people pain. Because he couldn't testify against Mick the first time, someone died years later, his friend Leo (Sebastian Stan from "Gossip Girl" and Hot Tub Time Machine) gets beat up, and the girl of his dreams gets roughed up. While it's true that Mick is only as good as the company he keeps, he refuses to choose a side because he doesn't think he has the courage to be good, to back down from a fight, to be perceived—even for a second—as stupid. Charlie, on the other hand, likes to toy with evil. He knows right from wrong and he has the will to be good, but he chooses to be evil for the thrill.

In one scene, Mick tried to teach him how to bluff in a poker game. He said, "It's all in the eyes … You're telling me how dangerous you are, but you wanna dare me to find out for myself." Charlie thinks that Mick's behavior is all a bluff. But his eyes, they're what lure people in. Before Mick and Mary first slept together she told him, "You have the most beautiful eyes." It's not a bluff or a trick, it's a hunting tactic. He lures in his prey, gives them this false sense of security, and then attacks when they least expect it…and sometimes when he least expects it. Charlie likes this, even if he doesn't want to admit it. He likes the idea of looking the devil in the eyes and trying to call his bluff. He would call it noble, but it's as Nia said, he's inadvertently causing evil with his actions. In the same gaze that Mick thinks he's luring Charlie in, Charlie is luring him in. He's luring him into a false sense of self, making him think that he can be good, that he can be preppy, that he can be smart, that he can be bourgeois. It's when Charlie realizes that this isn't a game, that Mick is a murderer, that he goes in for the kill. He removes the facade and "causes evil."

In the end, after Mick stops kicking his ass, Charlie narrates that he showed mercy for the first time. But I would argue that it was Mick who deserved mercy. He told Charlie that he came to their college town because when he was an orphan, they would send him to summer camp in the suburbs. Every poor kid recognizes this sudden and brief culture shock as cruelty. Give us the good life for a few weeks and then throw us back into the gutter. Welcoming Mick into their inner circle was cruel, and finally casting him out, while evil, was the only time they gave him any semblance of mercy. He needed to come to terms with who he was and they couldn't enable his delusions any further. For their "idle rich" behavior was not only evil, but irresponsible.

Rapper-turned-director Fred Durst and Ritter did an incredible job of playing up the suspense and keeping you on edge. I felt like the Jaws theme song should've been playing even when he wasn't on the screen. He was the animatronic shark—a machine, cold, ruthless, and determined. You never knew when he'd break, and you were still frightened when everyone else felt secure. But even with that undercurrent of fear, Ritter succeeded in making him endearing. Most villains are charming to their followers and lovers, but it takes a good actor to make them seem charming to the audience—to make the viewers root for them even when they don't seem to deserve the encouragement. Mick was a horrible person, but there was something in his eyes that made you believe that with a little positive reinforcement, a little deconstruction, he could become better. He lured you in. It was all in the eyes.

1 comment:

  1. This movie did a good job playing on reversals. Good is bad and bad is good. The movie depicts the lifestyle upper class teens as full of sex, drugs, alcohol and effortless achievement. They don't appear soiled in any way by their actions. In class they philosophize about life but in real-life practice their views are narrow.
    Mick is portrayed as a confused evil villain. In my opinion, Mick's anger symbolizes the frustration and plight of the poor lower class. In one scene, he is challenged by two preppy jocks. Two against one is not fair odds. He fights both at the same time and beats them. In another instance, one of the characters, Leo, cons a girl into giving him a key to a university building so he can enter without paying. It is explained in the narrative that Leo can afford to by a boat for $200k but refuses to pay $20 for admittance to the prom. When the girl asks for the key back so that she may not lose her job and scholarship funding, he makes up an excuse not to return it. The girl is not part of the upper class, rich crowd. His peers gently scold him but go on to remain his friends. Mick has a broader view, having experienced a life less fortunate. He overreacts in violence breaking Leon's nose. Mick is wrong but also right.
    At the end, Mick jumped into the river. In the narrative Charlie says that he probably rode the current back to his neighborhood where he remained hidden. Contrary to the narrative, Mick probably drowned. He was drunk, unfortunate and not "important" enough for divers to look for his body. This is the reason he is never seen again.