Steve Pink’s directorial debut (he was the screenwriter on John Cusack’s great black comedy Grosse Point Blank) is a slight but punchy comedy of college-aged misfits that starts out strong before slipping down a greasy narrative slope into a dull third act that denies most of the laughs that preceded. High school senior Bartleby (the squeaky clean kid from the Mac commercials—Justin Long) is a clever guy whose marginal grades provoke rejection letters from every college he applies to. Desperate for validation and approval from his dismissive parents (Ann Cusack and Mark Derwin) Bartleby brainstorms into existence a phony Ohio college that accepts him as a student.
Bartleby’s increasingly ambitious college hoax necessitates that he and his fellow college reject pals lease and renovate a disused mental hospital to house the “South Harmon Institute of Technology,” which he presents as a “sister college” to the actual Harmon College a few blocks away. A glitch in the bogus college’s website unexpectedly attracts a hoard of slackers who install themselves in the dorm only campus. What started out as a facade for learning becomes an alternative education hub with a swimming pool and a skateboard half-pipe where the curriculum is devised and taught by the students.
Because mainstream American counter-culture movies have barely existed for the past 20-plus years, Accepted comes with a desperate gasp for oxygen. The comic foundation is sound but the film’s execution stumbles because the screenwriters (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage and Mark Perez) don’t link enough witty dialogue to the film’s spastic tone. The overall casting of novice actors contributes to the failure of the production.
Jerry Zucker’s Rock ‘n Roll High School (1979) is a good example of a similarly themed movie that turned the rebellion of academic underachievers into comic and musical wealth, thanks in part to that venerable punk band the Ramones. There’s an inspired moment in Accepted when Bartleby jumps on stage with a band at a blowout party to take over singing duties for a version of the Ramones’ anthem “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Uncle Ben (Lewis Black) steals the movie as a fiercely blunt anti-authoritarian social renegade that Bartleby enlists as the Dean and sole faculty member of South Harmon Institute. Ben is the eccentric uncle of Bartleby’s best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill) who suffers humiliating hazing rituals at the fraternity of his father and grandfather at the authentic South Harmon college. Sherman takes the brunt of the most jokes, but we never get enough of his personality to embrace him as the protagonist’s alter ego.
Accepted falls short of its zany goal because it doesn’t relate the relationships of its characters to their kooky behaviors. Bartleby’s crony “Hands” (Columbus Short) was a star high school football player before an injury sidelined him into creating African-inspired sculptures with surprisingly enormous phalluses. The art pieces are amusing by themselves, be we can’t appreciate how they equate to the seemingly creative mind of their designer. It’s just one example of how the story and its characters are kept in hermetic bubbles of comic potential that are never popped. MTW