“When every college turned them down. . . they made one up.”
The tagline above sums up the plot line of this very funny film. The idea may seem unlikely in the extreme to some people. However, that sort of thinking harbors a higher consideration for establishment institutions than they probably deserve. The tagline also captures the difference between this movie and a quite similar, now classic comedy: Animal House.
This film possesses a great many similarities to the older college fraternity comedy, but it also has significant differences. Those differences give this movie a promise which perhaps the classic lacked. The differences in the films may actually show off differences in the greater portions of the generations depicted in the two movies.
Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) has not excelled at scholarship during his high school career. However, as the opening scenes show, he has learned many valuable lessons about human nature. Bartleby has a glib tongue and what I'll call a facility for “getting by.” After graduating from high school Bartleby sends admission applications to many colleges. In response, he receives nothing but rejection letters. His parents express concern for him failing in his life. His best friend, Sherman Schrader (Jonah Hill) has a sure thing at local Harmon College, where his father attended, but some of Bartleby's other friends also receive rejections. For some, this comes as quite a surprise.
Rory (Maria Thayer) has been studying hard, getting good grades and planning to attend Yale for years. However, she gets a rejection from Yale, the only school to which she sent an application. “Hands” (Columbus Short) expected an athletic scholarship, based on the tremendous sports ability he showed in high school. He also faces rejection. For others, rejection comes as less of a surprise. Glen (Adam Herschman) not only doesn't get accepted at college, but loses his fast food job. Bartleby's father (Mark Derwin) and mother (Ann Cusack) seem close to panic over Bartleby's rejection.
Faced with unhappy and demanding parents Bartleby applies his facility for “getting by.” He asks his friend Sherman to create a web site for the South Harmon Institute of Technology (acronym rhymes with "wit"). Reluctantly, Sherman does so, creating the capability to generate acceptance letters from the new school: "just a click away." When Bartleby shows his parents the acceptance letter and his father checks out the web site for its authenticity, the pressure on Bartleby from his parents lets up.
In fact, Bartleby's parents cut him a check for tuition. However, before long, they also want to tour the campus and talk to the Dean. With the money from his tuition check Bartleby leases an abandoned mental hospital. Bartleby and Sherman convince Sherman's Uncle Ben (Lewis Black, absolutely great in this role) to act as their Dean. After the "student body" does a clean-up job on their new campus facility and Bartleby's parents meet with the Dean, it seems as though everything might smoothly roll along for a while.
That would make a different movie than this one. In this movie, Sherman has made a very complete web site. So complete that many other young people rejected by mainstream colleges start showing up with their acceptance letters. Bartleby gets caught up in the flow of events and the extremely nontraditional South Harmon Institute of Technology takes off. A campus population unlike any other and a curriculum selected by those students give new meaning to "non-traditional education." Of course, this wouldn't really be much like Animal House if the outcasts had their fun without institutional opposition. Harmon College, with its Dean and the non-rejected student population of “Preppy types,” supply that opposition.
Apart from the social setting update caused by the passage of more than twenty years, what makes this film most different from Animal House concerns the methods used by the outcasts. The “Deltas” mainly worked within their college's system. On the other hand, Bartleby and friends work outside of the educational establishment. Getting their stuffy Dean to bless them does not concern the students of South Harmon. They don't have a stuffy Dean to worry about.
Their alternative school may seem outlandish to some viewers, but I don't completely agree. In many ways it returns to the roots of education where students seek out fields of knowledge and develop their own expertise. Self-directed learning has become a very popular organizing principle for modern education. I do not believe all of Bartleby's management techniques would translate perfectly to the real world. However, this film provides insight while it gives laughter. I give Accepted my hearty recommendation.