The two easy takes on The Education of Charlie Banks are: a) Jeez, this Jesse Eisenberg is in everything these days and always playing the same Michael-Cera-ish character! And b) The first feature film directed by Limp Bizkit bad-boy lead singer Fred Durst? It has to suck in unimaginable (and un-creative) ways!
Well, I’ve liked Eisenberg since first seeing him in Roger Dodger. He’s excellent in films like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland, and is a hoot in this weekend’s Zombieland. But I also get the criticisms. He’s not a star yet and he’s already got his stock character down pat: earnest but confused, good guy but sometimes selfish, sheepish but charming, all lines delivered while backing away as if they were fade-away jump shots. And Charlie Banks is his third ‘80s-set piece after Squid and Whale and Adventureland.
As for Durst, Charlie Banks is technically his debut film (completed in 2007), although his second—The Longshots—was released first, last fall. Mock all you want, but Durst is the real deal as a filmmaker. He’s not showing any deep cinematic genius yet, and in an attempt to shake off his aggressive, cloddish nu-metal-rap image he goes a bit too far and too sentimental in the other direction. But he’s making an solid, honest effort to tell complex, thoughtful stories about human nature and behavior and is succeeding to an admirable extent.
The Education of Charlie Banks follows the title character (Eisenberg) out of Greenwich Village to an East Coast college in the early ‘80s. Charlie is the Full Eisenberg: stammering, yearning, somewhat self-serving, and easily shaken. When Mick (Jason Ritter), a swaggering thug/bully/alpha male from the old ‘hood shows up on campus, the film becomes a study in class aspirations and conflict, the nature of violence, anger management, and redemption.
Durst makes no bones about his inspirations: Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski are name-checked, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” gets taken out for a classroom spin, and there’s a Raging Bull movie poster neatly displayed on a dorm room wall. But the most obvious touchstone is The Great Gatsby (by way of some Bret Easton Ellis). Up from the streets, Mick takes a liking to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and soon fancies himself staring at the green light on East Egg. Charlie plays the Nick Calloway role, mostly standing by, watching, worrying. And of course, Mick’s bad-boy routine quickly nabs him Mary (Eva Amurri), the Daisy Charlie had his eye on.
Meanwhile, Durst lays on the class distinctions. Charlie and Mick come
from the same streets, but Charlie’s dad owned a bookstore while Mick
was in and out of broken homes. At college Charlie eyes the upwardly
mobile track, hanging out with loathsome East Coast trust-fund babies.
Coming off as a young Treat Williams by way of Mark Wahlberg, Ritter (also currently on view in Good Dick) does a fine job as Mick, capturing how someone like that can be both magnetic and frightening—in fact it’s the mercurial threat of sudden violence that creates the dark attraction. He latches onto Gatsby (the first book he’s ever finished) but fails to see the endgame: Jay Gatsby cannot escape his shady past.
The Education of Charlie Banks is far from a perfect film. Its stream of emotional authenticity is sometimes undercut by the usual artifice and cliché–Durst is certainly sincere, but his attempts at complexity still fall a bit shallow. And the film’s thoughtful pace often drifts over into lackadaisical. Most ironically (or not) considering Durst’s musical background is how badly the film’s soundtrack overwhelms the proceedings. Rather than go the easy “alternative hits of the early ‘80s” route, Durst chose soulful, almost spiritual world music and while it sounds very nice, it too often roars up over scenes, swamping the delicate moods Charlie Banks is trying to create.
Still even as it sometimes weaves between ham-handed and listless, there’s plenty to like and admire in The Education of Charlie Banks, from the performances to the searching questions raised about human nature. I was never much of a Limp Bizkit fan, but with this as his calling card, I’m more than willing to follow Fred Durst’s directing career.