Posted on August 14, 2006 at 12:10 pm
Bartleby (Justin Long) has been turned down at every single college he applied to. His friends’ college plans have also turned out badly.
No problem. Bartleby is a can-do Ferris Bueller type — without “Twist and Shout,” a red Ferrari, a wealthy family, or a clever script.
He makes up a college, the South Harmon Institute of Technology. Its initials provide not only some sense of the movie’s level of humor but also the script’s most frequent word. All goes well until he realizes that he’s going to need more than a website and an acceptance letter. Eventually, the summer will end and he will need an actual place to go.
Bartleby and his friends fix up a building and hire an alcoholic former professor-turned-shoe-salesman (Lewis Black) to act as its dean.
All goes well until it turns out a lot of other kids have gone to the fake school’s fake website and printed out what they think are real letters of acceptance, and they show up expecting to move in and to go to school.
Fortunately, all of those kids have brought checks for their tuition, so Bartleby sets up a system of student-led learning, using that term very loosely. And all goes very, very well indeed until the snobby kids at the real college nearby decide to arrange for a simultaneous South Harmon parents’ weekend and a visit from the accredidation authorities.
This movie doesn’t have the intellectual heft to write its name correctly to get 200 points on its SATs, but the unpretentious good humor of its cast, brisk running time, a couple of funny lines, and the wish fulfillment fantasy of a college where you can do anything you want give it some genial appeal. It helps, too, that aside from the bad language, underage drinking, slight air of nihilism, and, what is that other thing, oh, yes, the fact that all the characters lie and cheat, there is some real sweetness in the way the characters treat each other. If this movie was a college application essay, it would be the kind that makes the office of admissions decide to overlook lackluster grades and take a chance.
Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and very crude humor for a PG-13. Characters drink and make fake IDs for those underage. There are some crude sexual remarks but the movie’s heroes and heroines do not engage in casual sex. However, the main characters engage in a great deal of risky and unethical behavior. For example, they lie, cheat, and steal.
Families who see this movie should talk about the pressure on high school students to get into the “right” college. They may also want to look at highly respected schools with alternative programs that give students the chance to design their own curriculum. Summerhill is an educational classic, now out of date but still worth reading. Do you think Bartleby’s name is a possible tribute to the Herman Melville’s character who said “I prefer not to” when asked to do his job?
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