What the hell has happened to Rob Reiner? I’m asking because I genuinely don’t know.
I grew up on Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and even the notorious North. I watched them all countless times, relishing in their colorful characters, quirky catchphrases (“That’s a goocher!”) and bittersweet tales of love and friendship. But after 1999’s underwhelming marital drama The Story of Us, Reiner fell off my radar for 17 years, despite churning out a string of critically reviled flicks like Alex & Emma, Rumor Has It, The Bucket List and And So It Goes. Then I was asked to review Being Charlie. And here we are: Me realizing Reiner is still making movies, marveling at how far he’s fallen.
Being Charlie explores the trauma and travails of overcoming drug addiction through the story of its crassly unlikeable hero. Played by The Kings of Summer’s Nick Robinson, Charlie smugly describes himself as a kid with a silver spoon that he uses to cook heroin. With in the film’s first five minutes, he flees a chipper rehab, vandalizes a church, and steals pain medication from a cancer patient. It’s a bold move on Reiner’s part, giving audiences a privileged, white, rich kid who is willfully selfish and recklessly destructive, and expecting us to empathize all the same. Initially, I was intrigued. But as Charlie looks blandly on the stretch of Hollywood’s homeless, while rapping about weed as his beat-boxing drug buddy (Devon Bostick) whisks him back to his movie star father’s posh mansion, it becomes increasingly difficult to give a shit about this shithead. And it just gets worse as he uses his brutal wit to insult and rattle his parents and any would-be interventionists.
Charlie’s frustrated father David (Cary Elwes) meets his son with a stern ultimatum: “Head back to treatment or live on the street.” From there, Being Charlie feels more like an outline than final cut. Charlie is at rehab a whole minute before in marches his love interest, a manic pixie junkie girl named Eva (Morgan Saylor), who must be trouble because she has blonde hair with dark roots. In a jarringly short montage, Charlie speeds through rehab to a half-way house, his father’s campaign roars to life, and the recovering teens go from one vaguely flirty conversation to all-consuming love. For a stretch it seems that Charlie and Eva’s romance will be the true core to this drama. Instead, boning Eva briefly becomes Charlie’s goal in place of recovery. Not long after the afterglow has worn off, this thinly sketched nymph is written out so that Charlie must focus on the relationship that will matter in the final act: father and son.
Regrettably this too is undercooked. With no attention put to his motivations, Elwes’ celebrity-turned-politician is presented as so blindly ambitious that he’s essentially a villain worthy of a mustache twirl or four. Meanwhile, Charlie’s mom (Susan Misner) is given nothing beyond coddling or crying over her poor son, and Charlie reserves only smirks and sniping remarks for dear old dad until the unearned emotional climax. Also sloppily looped in is a random thread about Charlie’s half-assed desire to be a stand-up comic. This makes way for a string of tone-deaf gay panic and fat jokes, like when Charlie jeers a heavy-set rehab worker by telling her she should try meth to lose weight. (Zing!) A brief brush of self-awareness comes when Common pops up as a mentor, giving Charlie a reality and privilege check, telling him he’s got it easier than a lot of other addicts. But Charlie quickly smart mouths his way out of this conversation, and back onto the streets, with its dour and predictable consequences.
Here’s where things get awkward: the movie was co-written by two former addicts, Matt Elisofon and the director’s own son, Nick Reiner. Perhaps this explains the jarring rehab humor, which includes mocking mournful mothers as “Crying Cathies,” snarking at animal therapy and role-playing sessions, and sneering at social workers, “You’re not slinging dope, you’re slinging hope and serenity!” However, this mean streak is less edgy and more grating, keeping us at a distance from the struggling young man the film supposedly wants us to understand.
I respect that this was a personal passion project for Reiner, and that he says it helped him better understand his son. Sadly, that has not translated into a good movie. Despite real experiences that influenced its script and the father-son relationship that got it made, Being Charlie lacks depth, ping ponging from a blasé bad boy to his scowling bad dad, never developing an onscreen bond worth rooting for. All its good intentions don’t make up for one-dimensional characters, cringe-inducing jokes, and a slapdash narrative.