The Education of Charlie Banks
The Education of Charlie Banks can prove an education for the close-minded critic. One, like myself, with certain preconceptions, such as the certainty that the directorial debut of a pop star like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst will be a vanity project riddled with sentimentality, clichés, and pretensions. Or that the typical adolescent coming-of-age story tends to suffer from both self-indulgence and triteness. Or that a voiceover narrator invariably signals the defeat of a filmmaker’s imagination.
Not that these preconceptions prove 100 percent unfounded, mind you. Durst’s film is no masterpiece. For the most part he demonstrates a vivid storytelling talent, a distinctive voice, a confident control of tone and tension, and a cagy handling of fine actors. But he also sloughs off toward the end, succumbing at times to the easy solutions of generic conventions. The convenient disasters, melodramatic confrontations, and tidy revelations put a dent in his GPA.
The voiceover narrative belongs to the title hero, played by Jesse Eisenberg, the go-to guy, since Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, for weedy, witty youths facing initiation into adulthood. Charlie, the nerdy son of a lefty Greenwich Village bookstore owner, and his more streetwise pal Danny are fascinated by the neighborhood psychopath, Mick. The film opens with grade-school-age Charlie musing over mini-Mick’s nearly beating to death the 11-year-old who dared deface one of his graffiti tags. Insane, true, but wouldn’t it be great to have somebody like that as a pal?
Charlie gets his chance a few years later when Mick makes the scene at a party with girls draped all over him. Mick takes a shine to the seeming loser and even invites him outside to watch him put two “fucking rich” college kids into intensive care. Horrified, and spurred on by his do-gooder dad, Charlie turns Mick in. Then he backs out of appearing in court as a witness and lies low in the neighborhood until he wins admission to a tony Ivy League school (an uncredited Brown University). There his interests pass from ethical dilemmas to “only two things, books and girls, or maybe just one.” That would be slumming society girl Mary (Eva Amurri), whom he ogles as she reads Mein Kampf in the original. With stars in his eyes, he returns to the dorm room he shares with old friend Danny, and who should be waiting for him but Mick himself?
Jason Ritter brings to Mick a brutal charisma, a calf-like innocence, and a kind of Jim Morrison visionary madness. But Charlie is also a charismatic guy in a droll, self-effacing, Woody Allen way, and what on one level is a doomed triangle involving the two boys and Mary is really a folie-à-deux of alter egos. Or is it? In a story about a diamond-in-the-rough pretender trying to ingratiate his way into the upper crust narrated by a cynical third wheel, isn’t it inevitable that someone would be assigned a paper on The Great Gatsby? Things get messy when Mick himself starts reading the Fitzgerald classic and from the peak of modernism arises the specter of postmodernism, Derrida, and Deconstructionism. At that point, maybe someone reminded Durst that in a film with “education” in the title you need to end with some clear-cut lessons. Too bad: this movie scores highest when it deviates farthest from the syllabus.