Wednesday, 18 March 2015

COMEDY: Accepted (2006)

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Accepted (USA, 2006)
Directed by Steve Pink
Starring Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Blake Lively, Anthony Heald

National Lampoon's Animal House has a lot to answer for. Ever since John Landis' comedy became one of the biggest hits of the late-1970s, we have had to live with a steady trickle of second-rate comedies about high school or college students. While the level of edginess or rauchiness has greatly varied from film to film, the vast majority lack even the slightest degree of subtext, which is ultimately what made Landis' work distinctive and subversive.

 
In the post-American Pie landscape, this trend has further mutated, with all the retrograde sexual attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s coming back into plain sight under the misplaced notion that they are ironically funny or - heaven forbid - empowering. But for all the chauvinistic unpleasantness of Superbad, or any Judd Apatow film for that matter, they are at least memorably offensive. Accepted, on the other hand, is a largely forgetable film which isn't that funny and doesn't try hard enough.
 
When it comes to judging any film which is branded edgy or dangerous, there is a basic rule of thumb. The rule is that a film's actual amount of edge, danger, shock value etc. is inversally proportional to the number of times its creators or commentators claim that it is any of these things. If you constantly have to tell people that a film is scary, or shocking, or funny, it's increasingly unlikely that it can be any of these things. Quality speaks for itself, rather than needing every journalist and promoter in the land to shout about it.
 
This culture of the lady protesting too much, to borrow a term from Shakespeare, is a consequence of a film industry obsessively driven by marketing and strict adherence to convention. Every time a film comes out whose plot involves a fair amount of sex, it has to be presented as the rauchiest thing ever made, even if it clearly isn't. Just as Zac and Miri Make a Porno is actually very tame (at least by the standards of Boogie Nights or John Waters films), so Accepted is not a new Animal House or American Pie. Even by the low standards of so many of the films these two inspired, it's still very tame indeed.
 
To give the film some credit, there is a nice little idea at the heart of its attempts to be raunchy and broad. In its quieter moments, particularly towards its conclusion, Accepted does touch on how educational institutions often overlook potential talent on the grounds of tradition and social expectations. The film doesn't touch on this anything like as much as it could: it's much more Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj than Dead Poet's Society, or even Step Up. But equally it pays more than lip service to the notion, and that gives it some semblance of brains, if not heart.
 
In his seminal book On Liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: "Persons of genius are... more individual than any other people - less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character." You would have a hard time defining any of our leading characters here as geniuses, but the fact remains that they have potential which is being overlooked or squandered by the narrow-mindedness of the American education system. Certainly it's hard to argue that America would be better off with all of its students ending up like Hoyt Ambrose.
 
If you were feeling equally charitable, you could view Accepted as a successor to the anti-establishment films of the 1960s. Even if we take the rambling, foul-mouthed, elderly teacher out of the equation, the film has a somewhat beatnik quality to it, populated as it is by people whose creativity thrives when not constrained by the established ways of doing things. If you're looking for a mid-noughties equivalent of Howl or Kill Your Darlings, you definitely won't find it, but this merest hint of subtext is there for those who want to see it.
 
The film also deserves credit for giving us a young male protagonist who isn't a completely unlikeable, unpleasant slacker. In Superbad we hated the characters, finding them so gormless or obnoxious that it was hard to excuse, let alone like, what they were doing. Bartleby's not exactly as likeable as Flounder in Animal House (or anyone else in Animal House, for that matter), but he is at least well-intentioned as a character. His need to lie to his parents to make them proud is certainly one trait with which many can empathise.
 
But despite all these plus points, the fact remains that, in the end, Accepted is still a pretty weak film. And its biggest weakness of all, ironically, is that it feels uncomfortable going as far as it needs to in order to justify either its reputation or its premise. If you are setting up a story about a school in which everyone breaks the rules, you can't pull any punches with the amount of carnage or excess you're prepared to show. You can't promise us Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' and then give us a tea party.
 
The reasons for this, to bring us almost full circle, lie in the marketing. Animal House had a raw energy and a spirit to it because it came from the same youth it was depicting; it was made by people who, at the time, didn't really know what they were doing. Accepted, on the other hand, is the product of a committee of middle-aged men, who want the film to be edgy enough to make a good trailer, but not so outrageous that it will alienate its core audience. It's a bit like giving someone a brilliant, bright red Ferrari and then telling them that they can only drive it when it's foggy, so as not to hurt the feelings of other drivers.
 
Steve Pink is a director who, at least for the present, plays by the rules of the Hollywood machine. His earlier work as a writer, such as Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, suggested someone who could bring something new to well-worn stories. But both here and on Hot Tub Time Machine, he has taken the executive's shilling and gone down the tried-and-tested route. While he's not unspeakably poor as a director, there's nothing particularly memorable or energetic about any of his compositions. Even though it's shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, who also shot Fast Times at Ridgmont High, it looks and feels like any other meat-and-potatoes teen comedy.
 
There are numerous points in its running time at which Accepted could and should have pushed things a little further, or gone for something that was a little more risqué. Teenage comedies of this kind don't always have to go down the Porky's route of just being gross or sexist; in fact, the film's ideas about the education system could have been a starting point to challenge such conventions. But even the biggest set-pieces involving destruction of property or swearing feel reined in, and as a result none of them are memorable.
 
A further problem with Accepted is its characters. Although our lead is relatively likeable (at least by the standards of similar films), none of the characters are distinctive enough to leave any impression after the film has finished. Some of the older actors are fleetingly memorable for being over-the-top, such as Bartleby's dad or Richard van Horne (Dr Chilton from The Silence of the Lambs). But the young cast, the people for whom we are meant to be rooting, are far too bland.
 
Jonah Hill's performance is a classic case in point. Hill's career has had its hits and misses, but his worst films (Superbad, The Sitter, Evan Almighty) have always been memorably bad. Here, on the other hand, he has very little to play with, neither excelling nor failing badly enough to make us watch him on a perverse level. His character generally fulfils the Flouder role from Animal House, being the socially awkward outcast who will never be properly accepted for who he is. But even with the girly scream and the jokes about his "weiner" (obvious but funny), he eventually blends into the background along with everyone else.
 
Accepted is a deeply forgettable film which demonstrates the problems with Hollywood's conservative approach to filmmaking. Had Steve Pink or any other director been given a longer leash, it could have been memorably outrageous, for better or worse. But as hard as it tries, it's still too tame and too boring to even risk challenging American Pie. As with so many modern Hollywood comedies, it's a slice of barely memorable disappointment which leaves a dull ache and then quickly fades.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

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