Being Charlie’s teenaged title character hails from a world of extreme privilege. His father, David Wells (Cary Elwes), is a former A-list movie star, famous for his pirate adventures, who’s now running for governor of California—sort of a bizarre cross between Johnny Depp and Arnold Schwarzenegger (though the pirate bit is likely a nod to Elwes’ role in The Princess Bride). Charlie, too, has showbiz aspirations—he’s done some open-mic performances as a stand-up comic—but there’s a slight hitch: He’s an unrepentant junkie who keeps fleeing the expensive rehab centers where his dad parks him. The movie was co-written (with Matt Elisofon) by one Nick Reiner, who’s all of 22 years old, and it’s loosely autobiographical, based on his own experiences in rehab… and on his battles with his own famous father, who directed it. Perhaps because of that personal connection, Being Charlie is Rob Reiner’s best film in at least two decades—admittedly a low bar to clear, given the competition (which includes such forgotten piffle as Alex & Emma and Rumor Has It…), but even a modest Meathead comeback is more than welcome.
Some of the credit should go to lead actor Nick Robinson, who’s best known for playing the older of the two supremely annoying kids in Jurassic World. Robinson’s glib, smartass persona (also seen in The Kings Of Summer) is ideally suited to this character; even before we discover how rich Charlie’s family is, he radiates the self-assurance of someone who knows that any trouble he causes won’t stick to him. Dad is paranoid about Charlie’s antics ruining his campaign, however, so he goes into extreme tough-love mode, inventing criminal charges that will supposedly land Charlie in jail if he bails on his latest program, run by a typically gruff-but-tender ex-con (Common). When Charlie falls for fellow addict Eva (Morgan Saylor, formerly Dana Brody on Homeland), straightening out his life starts to sound not so terrible, but this isn’t a movie about being saved by the love of a good woman. Nor does Charlie manage to rescue Eva when she relapses. Their relationship is believably toxic, and matched in its honesty by the film’s paternal dynamic, in which Dad genuinely loves his son but views him primarily as a serious professional liability.
None of this is strikingly original, and some of it is overstated in a typically Hollywood way; a late development involving Charlie’s best friend, Adam (Devon Bostick), who spends the entire movie snorting cocaine, feels especially forced. At one point, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” even gets ladled over a wistful montage, as a reminder that while Being Charlie was written by a millennial, it was directed by a baby boomer. But the movie has a core of rueful sincerity that’s frequently affecting, and a spiky sense of humor that’s been missing from Reiner’s movies for ages. The rehab scenes, in particular, demonstrate a specificity that’s clearly derived from the writers’ personal histories (Nick Reiner met Elisofon in rehab), even when it comes to “bits” like the recovering addict who constantly quotes R.P. McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. (“I’m gonna break that DVD,” one fellow patient snarls, to which another wearily replies, “If you break that DVD, we’re down to The Notebook and Cars 2.” That just sounds real.) His son’s addiction must have caused Rob Reiner a great deal of pain, but at least it inspired him, for the first time in many years, to make a movie that doesn’t feel wholly synthetic.