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Monday, August 21, 2006

Accepted

I wish I worked at Universal Studios because I’d definitely fire the people in the marketing department that came up with the lame title Accepted for their latest comedy release. First, the name tells you nothing. It’s not funny, and it isn’t particularly intriguing. Accepted has been marketed in the tradition of Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Van Wilder, all college battle royal movies depicting the outcasts against the uptight establishment, and this is certainly a prevalent plot point and theme throughout Accepted, but the truth is Accepted should have been named Ferris Bueller’s College Days.

Okay, before you ask for some of that funny stuff I’ve been smoking let me assure you that I haven’t been. I’m serious. I know that Accepted is targeted towards an audience that considers Lindsey Lohan the Katharine Hepburn of their generation and believe that cinema began with Ms. Lohan’s glorious Mean Girls, but for those of us who remember a world before Lohan, there was an entire genre of classic comedies that dipped into the well of teenage experience, a place where that other freckled redhead, Molly Ringwald, was Queen, and, on the basis of one role alone, the charismatic Matthew Broderick was King.

It was in this world where Ferris Bueller lived, and he was by far the cleverest teen of his era. He didn’t fight with “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, d***heads” - they all adored him as the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off told us. They thought he was a righteous dude, and he was. Unlike his counterparts in a dozen movies since, his focus was not on going to war with the establishment so much as on having fun while avoiding the establishment and that is what is at the heart of Accepted as well.

In Accepted, Bartelby Gaines (Justin Long; Jeepers Creepers) graduates from high school with the worst problem of his life. He has applied to and been rejected by eight colleges, much to the chagrin of his conservative parents who believe that a good college education is his only hope to having a prosperous future. Their disappointment in him is palpable, and in desperation to please, he ingeniously retrieves one of the rejection letters he received from the trash, altered the logo a bit of that of Harmon University and ~ Voila! ~ he creates an acceptance letter from a fictional sister school of Harmon U, the South Harmon Institute of Technology. The acronym says it all.

Mom and Dad are happy. Bartelby’s happy. Everything is fine. For about five minutes. That is until Dad (Mark Derwin; tv’s “One Life To Live”) wants to know more about this South Harmon Institute of Technology. In rapid time, B (as his friends call Bartelby) enlists his best friend Sherman Schrader (Jonah Hill; Click) to create a faux web page for the college that will “basically be functional” to give his Dad something to appease his curiosity. Mistake!

Sherman’s web page takes the “school’s pledge” at its’ word: “You are only one click away from being Accepted.” What he forgets to tell B is that the web page enrollment form really works and the mailing address, a post office box, is belongs to him.

Next thing you know, B’s parents insist on dropping him off at his new school and so he and his friends Rory (Maria Thayer; Strangers With Candy), Glen (debuting Adam Herschman), Hands (Columbus Short; War of the Worlds), and Sherman are forced to further the illusion by leasing an abandoned psychiatric hospital and cleaning it up just enough to present a façade to impress the senior Gaines’. What B and crew were not expecting were the 300 other real students who had applied for and were Accepted on-line to the school after being rejected by every college they too had sought to attend.

Suddenly Bartelby is faced with the dilemma of telling the crowd that they, like him, were losers once again or he could take the million dollars in tuition money that the students had sent in to the P.O. Box and turn his fake school into the real deal.

The fun here, of course, is that B, like his predecessor Ferris, knows how to have fun, and for once it is a teen comedy that relies on cleverness and brains rather than booze and boobs as the focal points of that fun. Oh, there are a few boob shots here and there but this is no Animal House. Instead, B decides that since he could never fit in with the traditional curriculum and rigidity of a place like Harmon University, then he will make South Harmon a school of individualized instruction and asks the students to create their own classes. What they come up with is obviously jaw-droppingly bizarre, but seems to work for them. Slacking 101, Free Thinking 347, Reality TV Appreciation, The Science of Skateboarding, and Blowing (Stuff) Up With Your Mind among others may seem odd and insignificant, yet they actually do provide learning opportunities as the participants share information and teach one another things, explore ideas, and stimulate creativity in ways that are stifled by the structures of traditional educational institutions.

Naturally, a clash between Harmon University, represented by its’ tightly-wound Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald; tv’s “Boston Public”) and Bartelby in front of the Board of Education Accreditation Committee climaxes the film, where the fun and games turns serious as B delivers a wake-up call to America's educational institutions, indicting them for crippling the minds of young people “who do not think within the box.” His students rally to show just how the college has been successful in teaching them and making them better people and all is right with the world, which is hardly a spoiler, but more of an expected happy ending that could never have really ended any other way.

The weight of the movie falls squarely on Justin Long’s shoulders and he proves that he is more than ready to step up from supporting player to leading man. Granted, he does not have conventional star looks a la Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but he does exude a sincere presence on screen and displays promising comedic talent. This kid is the real deal, and it will be interesting to see if he can make a career in film comedy, a tough egg to crack with a small field of players fighting for the same few roles.

Supporting him, and probably the funniest scene-stealer in the movie, is comedian Lewis Black, best known for his unique brand of cranky observational humor airing regularly on tv’s “The Daily Show.” Here he is recruited to play the fake Dean turned actual Dean of the faux then real South Harmon Institute of Technology and his riffs about life after college, about the government, taxes, adulthood, etc. while lecturing the kids during his “open air classes” provide enough laughs per minute to have you gasping for breath. One caution though. Try not to eat or drink anything when Black is speaking or you may well end up covering the person in front of you with the spew. What comes out of his mouth is so funny you won’t be able to control what comes out of yours.

Accepted is now-playing at the Essex Cinemas, and it deserves a lot more respect than it is getting. It’s kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of summer movies, which is too bad because this is definitely not your average teen sex comedy.

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