Justin Long is an amiable young actor–he was the doomed brother in “Jeepers Creepers” and the geeky guy in “Dodgeball,” and co-stars in the latest run of Apple commercials–but he couldn’t salvage the wretched “Waiting,” and he can’t make this ersatz campus comedy, sleepily directed by ex-actor Steve Pink, tolerable. “Accepted” wants to be a new “Animal House,” but it’s more like a rerun of “PCU.”
The idea behind the picture is that Bartleby Gaines (Long) has failed to be get into college, deeply disappointing his parents. (Of course, they must have disappointed him by naming him Bartleby in the first place.) So with the help of his chubby computer-savvy buddy Sherman (Jonah Hill), he invents a fictitious institution, website and all, which he pretends has admitted him. Of course, to pull the con off, he has to create a campus his family can actually visit–so he and his buddies renovate a deserted psychiatric hospital to make it look like a school and hire a derelict, sharp-tongued ex-academic (“Daily Show” comic Lewis Black) to play its dean. Things get complicated when hundreds of kids show up for classes, having enrolled via that website and waving ten-thouand dollar tuition checks. And Bartleby, unable to reject kids who have been turned down too often (as well as their money, one supposes), decides to keep the place open and actually run it as a college where the students “teach” each other in self-constructed “courses” of distinctly unorthodox cast.
That radical, undisciplined approach can’t go unchallenged, of course. Arrogant Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) of the prestigious Harmon University that just happens to be adjacent to the new school, learns of Bartleby’s establishment when he sends his most helpful student, the obnoxious Dwayne (Kellan Lutz), to buy up the land it sits on for an imposing new entrance for his August institution. And he tries to shut the place down by dragging Bartleby before Ohio’s accrediting board. This leads to a big, uplifting, and supremely unlikely finale when Gaines and his supportive students appear before the educators to argue their case. The institutional struggle is tied up in a personal one, since Dwayne is also the fraternity president tormenting Sherman, as well as the philandering boyfriend of Monica (Blake Lively), the neighbor Bartleby’s always loved from afar. And there’s a small army of supposedly colorful students to act wild and weird in the intervals between the bursts of plot, among whom Adam Herschman, as a would-be master chef, stands out like a sore thumb even in so large a group of take-no-prisoner actors trying desperately to make themselves noticed. Still, he seems positively restrained beside Heald (the doomed psychiatrist in “The Silence of the Lambs”), whose sneering is tiresome on its first appearance, and Black, whose rants aren’t nearly as funny as the ones he does for Jon Stewart.
“Accepted” was written by a trio of sterling scribes who among them previously gave us “New York Minute” and “The Country Bears.” That should give you some idea of the quality of their script, which could have yielded a sharp academic satire had its central premise been treated with some intelligence. But instead the picture opts for the most obvious sort of goofball farce, leavened with cheap sentiment, David-vs.-Goliath triumphalism, and a pronounced string of scatological gags (Bartleby’s school is called the South Harmon Institute of Technology; just think of the acronym that name naturally leads to, and then imagine the result when its students gleefully refer to themselves similarly to the way in which Packer fans are called Cheeseheads; there’s a lot of, shall we say, verbally excremental humor). It’s an uneasy mixture, mirrored in the character of Bartleby, initially a clumsy non-achiever who’s abruptly transformed into a master entrepreneur and sizzling speaker. Even Long, deft as he is, can’t manage such massive contradictions, and none of his supporting players do much more than coast their way through a variety of indignities, with the unfortunate, though game, Hill forced to endure the most pronounced and numerous humiliations. Visually the picture looks pretty grubby, though it’s difficult to tell whether the blame rests more with DP Matthew Leonetti or production designer Rusty Smith.
One might be tempted to believe that Universal is releasing “Accepted” in August in anticipation of the imminent beginning of the new school year. But the choice was probably dictated less by an academic calendar than by the fact that the month is the traditional dumping-ground for movies studios realize are dogs. Woof.