What Passes for Booklearning
The Education Of Charlie Banks, Dir: Fred Durst, Now Playing
Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s directorial debut The Education of Charlie Banks took a long time to find release after its festival showings in 2007. Having Durst’s name attached might not have helped its case. Though the film proves both sentimental and haunting, Durst is considered more a personality than an artist to put it gently. But he’s a decent journeyman director; The Education of Charlie Banks proves better than you’d expect and shouldn’t slip away unmentioned. Suffering at times a beginner’s earnestness, the film is as quiet as Durst’s persona is loud. A coming-of-age story of brutality and death, it’s best described as lovely.
Set at a facsmilie of Vassar college in the early 1980s, there’s too much of screenwriter Peter Elkhoff’s autobiography, but little nostalgia or showboating. The dialogue has a surprising lack of precociousness, and the characters aren’t forced to be wise beyond their years. The story gets told. Still, the screenwriter and director appear to have fallen inordinately in love with the dusty yet endearing archetypes that populate the film. Durst delivers many extended close ups of his characters, most unwarranted. As the title character, Jesse Eisenberg, (The Squid and the Whale) delivers one of the better voice-overs in a coming-of-age film but his close-ups always look like an SAT prep commercial. Only Jason Ritter, son of John Ritter and a sitcom actor himself, offers the cascading emotions that the camera eats up. His face is a wonder, though he isn’t quite sure how to use it. His emotional range is impressive, but his scenes read like a screen test. It’s hard to link the images to the story unfolding. Like so much in the film, Ritter tantalizes with the promise of future projects that may come together more fully. Ritter plays Mick, a John Travolta-inspired New York juvenile delinquent type not often seen anymore. It’s unclear if he’s a genuine sociopath, or just a thug, or whether the distinction is even valid. All that’s certain is that no matter how badly he wants to, he doesn’t belong at Vassar.
Mick and Charlie are bound by Charlie’s roommate Danny—played crisply by Chris Marquette—and the past the three shared growing up in New York City. The film uses the city well, recognizing the little regarded fact that the city is a site for passing. In New York, class and social standing are critical yet malleable. The three boys share a talent for self-invention that they all learned as native New Yorkers. Soon after his unexpected and menacing arrival at Vassar, Mick dons a cardigan and starts acting like a teenaged James Spader. “I’m very adaptable, or so I’ve been told,” he says. He’s not the only one. By the time he arrives at Vassar, Charlie—a red diaper baby—has defied his father’s injunctions to speak up against injustice, and is engaged in self-annihilation. Turning a blind eye to violence, he spends his time lusting Philip Roth-style after Mary, an underwritten WASP good time girl whose Senator father hopes to see her marry John F. Kennedy, Jr.. Danny, the son of psychiatrist parents pulled straight from Heathers, goes through high school striving to be taken seriously in the graffiti scene, and befriends Mick to get his bonifides. “I’m not rich,” he says. “My parents are rich. Rich people don’t tag.” He’s delusional, obviously. By the time he arrives at Vassar, he’s over grafitti. But his loyalty to Mick remains, because Mick accepted him.
The characters who don’t come from the city have a different relationship to their own identities. The idle rich, as they are repeatedly called, have known from birth who they forever will be, and they appear to have been sent to Vassar for four or five years of lightly controlled slumming. Charlie believes he couldn’t be more different from Mick, but Mary treats them both as novel examples of underclass, playthings. She won’t marry either, and neither will her friends. Soon they’ll both just be memories. Though they’ve learned to act like just about anyone, they’re barred by gates that can be crossed only at birth. In one notable scene, Mick and Charlie come to visit Mary’s photography exhibition. She’s doing vernacular photography, making portraits of “normal people.” Without the good sense to be outraged by her elitism, the pair pose for a picture. Charlie is visibly uncomfortable being lumped in with the normal people, and Mick holds him in frame with a bullying embrace and the smile of a genuine prom king. We never see the finished photograph, since to Mary it’s just another piece of paper for her fine arts requirement.
“Fucking rich people,” the trio exclaim a few times about their new friends, describing everything from a lament to a hobby. Leo, the leader of the patrician clique, infuriates everyone but Mary, whom he has known since birth. He has a plane, so he rarely needs to apologize. In a fine montage, the group takes the plane to the Hamptons. They splash on the beach, harkening back to Gerald and Sara Murphy’s 1920s French Riviera paradise. Everyone belongs—they are all guests of Leo. It’s easy to fall in love on vacation, the montage shows. And it’s easy to fall in love with the charmed poise of the Brahmin. Leo takes advantage of people at every turn, exacting favors that will ruin his cohorts’ lives. He is viciously unconcerned with what happens to the people around him. His trust fund will always attract replacements. Whose crimes are worse, the film asks, Leo’s or Mick’s?
The Education of Charlie Banks presents many such deep questions in the terribly sincere manner of Freshman ethics. Great books are cited throughout the film, from Eichmann in Jerusalem to The Great Gatsby. The references edge toward the irritating, but hold back. The undergraduate self-conscious reliance on their source material is true to life, as is their approach-avoidance relationship to Mick. “The Noble Savage Act is growing old,” Leo quips, before Mick gives him a much deserved punch in the jaw. Everyone is astonished by the intrusion of physical violence into the ivory tower, but it’s not what brands Mick as out of place. Far more telling is that when Mick tries to woo Mary with Derrida, he can’t for the life of him employ the text as a tool of seduction.
Both the fight and the quotations are hackneyed, but within the tightly constructed point-of-view of the film, they work. We see Mick through Charlie’s eyes, and he fights like a dancer in West Side Story. Though Charlie watches Mick send a man into a coma in the first scene of the film, he never really understands the immediacy of violence. All his booklearning has taught Charlie too much of the relativism of psychology and history to proclaim anyone as evil. What sort of man Charlie will become once he acknowledges and stands up to evil is a question not satisfyingly resolved. But I could say that of most of us.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.