What the hell is happening at the movies? You look away for a second and all of a sudden stupid summer comedies aimed at folks looking to turn their brains off have turned sneakily thinky and — dare we even say it? — downright insurgent. I wasn’t sure I could take the shock of, first, the stunning subversiveness of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and now I have to contend with Accepted, which would like you to think it’s a dumbass teen movie but is actually a little kick in the pants of the twin devils of conformity and consumerism, and a celebration of otherness and glorious eccentricity.
That may sound like sarcasm, especially to anyone who knows in what disdain I hold idiotic comedies, but I swear to god, it ain’t… cuz neither of these films is idiotic. Accepted is in strong contention, in fact, with Talladega Nights, as my number-one movie of the summer, and it’s all the more welcome — and delightful — for its unexpectedness. I’ve gotten so used to the Scary Movies and Little Mans of the world that I’d almost forgotten how smart a “dumb” comedy can be.
This is almost like a lost movie from my teenhood, a forgotten relic of the late 70s, early 80s, when even summer comedies came with a touch of social commentary and a bit of class consciousness — when they ate the rich instead of aspiring to be one of them. If Accepted is part Caddyshack, part Breakfast Club, then its star, Justin Long — the “I’m a Mac” guy from the computer commercials and the best thing in The Break-Up and Herbie: Fully Loaded — is Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd and Emilio Estevez rolled into one charming package. With his dash of snark and his off-kilter good looks and his appealingly huggable vulnerability, his Bartleby Gaines is an anti-everyman hero, a literal freedom fighter railing against the chains of societal expectations that can drive even the best of us to succumb to one-note conventionality. And though so many movies pretend to be about unusual or oddball characters, this one really feels like it is — it feels like it doesn’t give a crap if you agree with it or not, because it knows it’s in the right. There’s a commanding confidence to Accepted that is entirely unlike anything many mainstream films are able to pull off. It doesn’t have to beg you to like it, as it grooves along from one funny moment to the next, self-assured and totally self-possessed — it believes in your ability to see that what it’s saying makes sense, and if you don’t see it, that’s your loss, man.
There’s a line of dialogue in Accepted — the directorial debut of Steve Pink, a production partner of John Cusack’s and writer of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity — that’s so powerfully refreshing that I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that it showed up in this flick. “We say yes to your hopes; we say yes to your dreams,” Bartleby tells the “incoming class” of the South Harmon Institute of Technology, the college he invented in order to fool his parents when he fails to get into any legitimate schools, but it’s how Bartleby wraps up his little speech that stuns: “We say yes to your flaws.” It may not be real deep, but it is real sweet, the play on words that is the title of this warmly engaging flick: these kids haven’t just been accepted to a college, even if it is an entirely fictional one — they’ve been accepted by peers they never knew they had. They are the oddballs and the weirdoes and the nutjobs and the rejects, but here — where they with self-deprecating affection call themselves the, um South Harmon Institute of Technology-heads (work out the acronym), they fit in without having to change who they are. Bartleby’s dad may be a bit suspicious of the school from the start — he doesn’t doubt its legitimacy, just its mission, and he snipes, “What’s all this ‘be what you wanna be’ crap?” But this is, after all, a man who had previously told his son, “If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna fit in, you go to college,” as if “being somebody” and “fitting in” was all there was to life. He cannot appreciate “courses,” created by the students, like Daydreaming 307 and Doing Nothing 405 (not to mention the classes in bumper stickers, skateboarding, and getting laid), but we, in the audience, understand that there is a profundity in such goofiness, and a wisdom in discovering who you are. Being yourself is, in the bracing world of Accepted, far more important than being some nebulously defined “somebody.”
The snooty, preppy, fraternity-loving collegiates of Harmon University, practically next door to “South Harmon”’s converted-mental-hospital facility, don’t agree, naturally. They can’t stand the fact that all these “losers” suddenly don’t care that they’re not in the cool-kids’ club — it leaves them with fewer desperate victims to torture, for one. And while it may be easy to make fun of the snoots and the preps and the stuck-up rich kids, for the first time in a long time, here’s a movie that does actually make it look more appealing to be one of the losers and the dorks and the dweebs.