2 stars (out of four)
There's nothing new in comedy. In the early 20th Century the Marx Brothers toured in a vaudeville act called "Fun in Hi Skule." In the late 20th Century all manner of transgressive scoundrels ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Risky Business") made their own kind of hi skule whoopee, while "Animal House" and a million imitators, from "Back to School" to "Old School," enrolled in kollege for fun and profit.
"Accepted" is the latest higher-ed lark, a mildly funny PG-13 effort that is just dying to release an R- or unrated DVD version of itself. That way all the pool party sequences can lay off the false modesty.
Shut out of eight area colleges, glib Ohio motormouth Bartleby (Justin Long, who looks like the love child of Bob Denver and Robert Downey Jr.) pulls a fast one on his credulous folks. With the help of his pal Sherman (Jonah Hill) and fellow rejects Glen (Adam Herschman), Rory (Maria Thayer) and Hands (Columbus Short), Bartleby concocts a fake college, the South Harmon Institute of Technology, blessed with an acronym "Accepted" cannot recycle enough.
The gang sets up shop in an abandoned psychiatric institution. Faced, to their surprise, with hundreds of eager enrollees bearing tuition checks, Bartleby transforms the ruse into an experiment in post-counterculture "open campus" planning. "Daily Show" veteran Lewis Black plays Sherman's bitter Uncle Ben, enlisted to impersonate the dean. (He doesn't get the material he deserves.) The students propose their own courses ("Foreign Affairs--Hooking Up Overseas"). It's like the Freedom School in the "Billy Jack" pictures without all the bloodshed.
The film marks the directorial debut of Chicago native Steve Pink, who co-wrote the sharp-witted script for "Grosse Pointe Blank." Pink does what he can with this duller-witted one. Some of the verbal riffs have their moments (especially when Bartleby goes up against the frat boys) but "Accepted" cannot handle its pretensions toward social commentary. Threatened with closure and hounded by the stuffed shirts at the neighboring Harmon College, Bartleby makes his case before the state accreditation board. "You rob these kids of their creativity and their passion," he thunders, nodding to the Harmon frat-boy zombies and their dates. "That's the real crime!"
Chief compensations in "Accepted" include Thayer's Rory, a tightly wound Gal Friday with real comic flair, and a deadpan ace--age 12 at the time of filming--by the name of Hannah Marks as Bartleby's suspicious little sister. Both are worth watching.
Directed by Steve Pink; screenplay by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage and Mark Perez; cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Scott Hill; production design by Rusty Smith; music by David Schommer; produced by Tom Shadyac and Michael Bostick. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual material and drug content).
Bartleby Gaines - Justin Long
Sherman Schrader - Jonah Hill
Monica - Blake Lively
Rory - Maria Thayer
Dean Van Horne - Anthony Heald
Glen - Adam Herschman
Hands - Columbus Short
Uncle Ben - Lewis Black