starring Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Nguajah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton
written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
starring Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Robert Downey Jr.
screenplay by Gustin Nash
directed by Jon Poll
by Walter Chaw I'm not sure how The Signal could possibly avoid becoming some kind of cult classic, given that it apes bona fide cult classics like Evil Dead II, Dead Alive, and Shaun of the Dead with so much unabashed glee. Its cast of amateur actors and its trio of rookie directors reek of first-timer's brinkmanship, with the presumed luxuries of no budget and a lot of time to watch horror flicks having resulting in a bloated, over-stuffed sausage of a picture that hits once or twice in the gore bits while badly miscalculating a time or two in flashes of real ugly sadism. I liked The Signal fine, but aesthetically, it's distanced: It's not fun but it thinks it's fun, and it's only really interesting if you're already (over)familiar with the classics of the splatter genre. Put it up against Edgar Wright's pictures (and The Signal looks a lot like the Don't trailer Wright produced for Grindhouse) to chart the difference between films that work as exceptional examples of the genres they're aping and neo-Shrek wannabes that play like a trivia game for folks pleased to recognize a severed-head-in-a-vise gag from one of the most storied independent success stories of all time.
Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Justin Welborn), who, one fateful night, proposes that Mya leave her husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen) and join him on a train departing from terminal 13 to somewhere/anywhere away from the town of Terminus. Mya is the type of sap for whom this a romantic idea; Ben is the type of sap who makes a mix tape for his married girlfriend; and when a mysterious signal corrupts all media transmissions, driving people to insane acts of violence against one another, Mya does the only sensible thing and makes herself a sitting duck by putting on her earphones. Who still uses a CD Walkman in the age of the iPod is a good question, but then you realize the movie has its sensibilities rooted in the exploitation flicks Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson were churning out in the late-Eighties/early-Nineties and all is, if not forgiven, at least more easily understood.
The rest of the film is essentially Ben trying to locate Mya in a 28 Days Later wasteland while deranged Lewis, drunk on too much television, tries to kill them. The high-concept novelty has to do with the way the story's told in three individually-helmed chapters, each with its own unique sensibility. The first feels like the first Evil Dead, the second like the second, and the last like some random piece of shit, zero-budget horror flick shot in a bus station. (Despite doing its best to establish a tone, the third segment succeeds mainly in providing an anti-climax.) Taken as a whole, The Signal is too much the self-conscious experiment. It's not pleased with itself, I don't believe, but it does think it's reinventing the wheel--which, if true, is a curious thing to have thunk given not only that the best bits were done in better flicks but also that the picture's lags are entirely its own.
Still, it plays like fucking Shakespeare next to Jon Poll's reprehensible, rudderless teensploitation throwback Charlie Bartlett. Who knew that Pump Up the Volume would serve as the inspiration for a feckless piece of shit, let alone inspire nostalgia for its comparative deftness? The message of Allan Moyle's story of a loser outcast (Christian Slater) who starts a pirate radio station, talks dirty, influences people, accidentally causes one kid to kill himself, and gets a raven-haired beauty for a girlfriend is something along the lines of "question everything" and "find your voice." The message of Charlie Bartlett (which, save the radio show, follows along pretty closely with the basic plot of Pump Up the Volume) is the unsurprising revelation that kids place a pretty high premium on being popular in high school and that there are no real consequences to anything you do. In that way, it's a lot like Juno, another archconservative flick about transgression and painless redemption that dispenses quirky one-liners with the agonizing regularity of explosive diarrhea. It's also a self-righteous, self-satisfied piece of crap about a teenage boy, Charlie (Anton Yelchin, just getting harder and harder to watch as he grows older), trying on the Ferris Bueller charm and setting up therapy sessions in the boy's room of the public school to which he's exiled, Max Fischer-like, complete with prep-school jacket and a penchant for Drama Club.
Here's the rub: Charlie prescribes, for a hefty fee, medication he's conned from his mom (Hope Davis, cast as Yelchin's mother for the second time after Hearts in Atlantis; this is, incidentally, her worst performance yet) and her posse of mental health professionals--presaged by a scene at a school dance/rave in which he fences a bottle of Ritalin to his classmates, leading to a moment where a couple of girls, playing high-school girls, run by topless as they're chased by a comic-relief-retard (Dylan Taylor) who provides the film its sentimental rimshot. What's funnier than a retard who likes bad musicals, am I right? Since porn itself isn't allowed, legally, to imply that its performers are underage, I got the heebie-jeebies watching actresses I hope are over eighteen portray high-schoolers, topless and high, about to be raped by a Faulknerian man-child in a cape. Offended? I was, too.
Charlie becomes extremely popular for listening to his classmates' woes and giving them Xanax for a lot of money--things he does apparently because his dad was sent to prison on tax charges in merely one of dozens upon dozens of instances where the film Dr. Philosiphizes in its exploitative, awfully-pleased-with-how-my-shit-stinks sort of way. His raven-haired girlfriend is the very-appealing Susan (Kat Dennings), making it all the more unlikely that Charlie would have a chance to tap that in one of the screen's grossest consummations; and Susan's dad is Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who acts so incongruously that, seriously, I wanted to slap Poll's and screenwriter Gustin Nash's mothers. Charlie Bartlett is almost literally incomprehensible. I don't understand how the singularly irritating Charlie ever becomes popular in any context, much less through fleecing the people who hate him by asking invasive personal questions and dispensing prescription medication. And I don't understand the message when, as soon as Charlie tells his adoring throng that they should learn to be themselves, they instantly take it upon themselves to trash their student lodge.
But, but, but: all is forgiven in the end. The rioting mob doesn't go to jail because they have the foresight to smash the surveillance cameras (never mind that the source of their ire, the installation of said cameras, seems like a pretty good idea in the wake of our fin de siècle of school shootings and the recent atrocity at NIU); Charlie reconciles with girlfriend's daddy and his own daddy (but doesn't hesitate to take this opportunity to again trick his over-medicated mother); and a controversial--and stupid--play written by the perfunctory suicide risk/catalyst for Charlie's moral conversion is put on even though the regime that reluctantly allowed its production has been replaced by the evil school superintendent. A chilling portrait of teen life, Charlie Bartlett offers a scary glimpse into its creators' experience in high school as one lacking in so much as nascent humanity.
There are no relationships in the picture not dictated by deception and opportunism and there's no line of dialogue that rings with anything like truth when smarmed by the endlessly mugging Yelchin. When it's not busy avoiding the conversations that would provide perspective on its characters and their situation, it's busy sketching out scenarios that it has neither the intelligence nor the temerity to follow through to anything like a convincing, well-earned conclusion. It's physically painful to see Downey Jr. in something like this, especially in a passage where he appears to be talking about his own checkered past that only reminds that his performance in another teensploitation flick (Less Than Zero) still says all there needs be said about Downey Jr.'s fall some two decades later. Poll's film is exploitation in every definition of the term. I'm going to be really fucking depressed if Charlie Bartlett isn't the worst, most irresponsible movie I see this year. Originally published: February 22, 2008.