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'Admission' Granted: 20 Great College-Set Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 21, 2013 3:59 PM
8 Comments
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The Social Network
"The Social Network" (2010)
Before the first trailer dropped, the prospect of a "Facebook movie" was not at all appetizing for many moviegoers, with much of the general public assuming it would just be an earnest ‘"origins flick" for a website nobody really wanted to hear about anymore. But David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, canny as they are (and working from Ben Mezrich’s book "The Accidental Billionaires"), twisted the angles a bit to produce a knockout; a tense legal procedural, digital-age heist movie, singular character study (although Jesse Eisenberg also deserves huge credit for that) and classic piece of Hollywood myth-making all rolled into one. The first hour of the film focuses on the social bubble of Harvard University, and in many ways the true nature of "The Social Network" can be seen in the way it represents the Harvard experience. Zuckerberg is presented largely as an outsider, someone who found the rules and strictures of the university an unnecessary inconvenience; his classes were too easy and the fusty, bureaucratic old faculty lack the imagination to see Zuckerberg for the radical thinker he really is. This Harvard is a place where the privileged and connected few enjoy the same old advantages and seek to preserve the status quo. In many ways "The Social Network" is an anti-college movie, but perhaps it is also a necessary counterweight to the enormous tide that flows from Hollywood selling the other side, where college is the embodiment of success  and the only possible route to a better life. In fact, a huge number of youth-oriented films have college acceptance as a major part of the plot, and show not getting into college as abject failure, as the end of ambition, as consignment to a menial life. Fincher didn’t go to college, so it is no surprise that what he and Aaron Sorkin did was remake the Facebook story as an entrepreneurialist myth wrapped up in a legal drama. The Winklevoss twins, the velvet-jacketed "Harvard men" through and through, are the villains of the piece, and the college dropouts are the heroes. In many respects it’s a Hollywood play as old as the hills, only with an ultra-modern twist. In the end, the cretinous Winklevoss’ get their money, but by that time Facebook has become a giant, and Zuckerberg’s colossus merely shakes off their hundred-million dollar lawsuits like a couple of pesky insects, as it rises to claim its rightful place amongst the global elite.

Starter For 10
"Starter For Ten" (2006)
In Britain there are two types of universities -- there are the dreaming spires of the Oxbridge universities, which are almost a thousand years old and look down upon the world from a position of impossible wealth, power and influence, and then there are the rest, which is where normal people go. Tom Vaughan’s "Starter for 10," based on the bestselling novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote "One Day"), is a nostalgic paean to the latter of these. It’s particularly notable for the roster of British acting talent that it gave early outings to, with James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all putting in sterling work as 1980’s Bristol Uni students. The fairly predictable romantic comedy aspects of the plot are elevated by charismatic performances from a cast that seven years later would likely cost ten times as much to put together. The world they show is one of free universities with cheap, cheap pints of beer, terrible haircuts, incredible music, plentiful protests, general laziness and extreme squalor.  While the Oxbridge universities get their "Brideshead Revisited" and their "True Blue," there are surprisingly few films about the more usual student experience at the modern universities. "Starter for Ten" is low key, but few films manage to portray the embarrassment, lust, new experiences and heady intensity of college friendships with such charm.

Woman Of Distinction
"A Woman of Distinction" (1950)
Probably the most similar in plot to “Admission” on this list, “A Woman of Distinction” is about a college dean (Rosalind Russell) who finds love with a British astronomy professor (Ray Milland). Dean Middlecott is a career woman who feels there’s no room in her life for romance, so when the newspapers hint at something between her and Professor Stevenson (who she’s never met), she flips her lid. In typical romantic comedy fashion, more hijinks ensue as the two meet and squabble (portrayed in the papers as a lovers’ spat) and the publicity gets out of hand when rumors circulate that Stevenson is the father of Middlecott’s adopted daughter. Not only is her icy reputation at stake, but also her job. “A Woman of Distinction” may be cheesy, but it’s the right kind of cheese, that will leave you laughing and smiling with every pratfall (comedienne Russell falls out of chairs, gets sprayed with water, and is smeared with mud). With Russell rivaling Lucille Ball in physical comedy and Milland being rather dashing, who wouldn’t enjoy? On a casting trivia note, you may recognize the actor playing Middlecott’s father. Yes, that’s Edmund Gwenn, aka Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Wonder Boys
"Wonder Boys" (2000)
Starring Michael Douglas as an underachieving English professor and Tobey Maguire as his slightly off, albeit promising student, “Wonder Boys” follows Professor Grady as his young wife leaves him, through his never-ending struggle in writing a second novel, when his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes a shine to a promising student’s manuscript. The antithesis of Douglas’s famous Gordon Gekko, Professor Grady is disheveled in a way only a tenured academic can be, and his main hobby appears to be smoking pot when he’s not schtupping his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand). This is a side of academia that has not been shown often on the big screen, let alone by such a stellar cast up to the task. A world of understated pretensions and creative rivalries, there is just as much chaos and dysfunction here as in other work environments. Based off of the Michael Chabon novel, the film is littered with an appreciation for the finer (dare I write it – academic) details, including a very specific sequence involving a dead dog and the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore on the day of her wedding to Joe DiMaggio. A critical darling, “Wonder Boys” continues to charm.

A Yank at Oxford
"A Yank at Oxford" (1938)/ "A Chump at Oxford" (1940) /"Oxford Blues" (1984)
Oxford University might not quite be the oldest institution of higher learning in the world, but it might be the most famous, which is why it's surprising that it's not been central to more college-themed movies. But there are a few exceptions, most notably the 1938 MGM production "A Yank At Oxford," and its subsequent parody, Laurel & Hardy's "A Chump At Oxford," and its remake, 1984's "Oxford Blues." The original, MGM's first British production, which featured a script polish by F. Scott Fitzgerald, stars Robert Taylor as a brash American who gets a scholarship to attend Oxford. He doesn't make many friends at first, particularly afer falling for the sister (Maureen O'Sullivan) of another student, but he's eventually able to win them round with his rowing prowess. It's pretty rote and highly moralistic stuff, but decently acted, especially by Vivien Leigh as a married women who nearly leads to Taylor's downfall (the part here led to her being cast as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind"). The film was successful enough to inspire Laurel & Hardy to parody it two years later with "A Chump At Oxford," which sees Stan & Ollie enrolled at the university after stopping a bank robbery (it's a long story). It's not quite the duo's best effort, but has its funny moments, and it's worth keeping an eye out for a young Peter Cushing as another student. It's certainly better than "Oxford Blues," a direct, if loose remake, which sees Rob Lowe come to Oxford to pursue an aristocratic girl. Lowe's somewhat unlikable (and a bit stalky) in the film, and neither the comedy or the drama are especially effective.

Honorable Mention: Other films that either didn't quite feel college-set enough, weren't quite good enough, or that we didn't have the space for include: dark Matthew Lillard comedy "Dead Man's Curve," smash hit "Love Story," "Good Will Hunting," "The Paper Chase," Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing," "Drive He Said," "Legally Blonde," "Mona Lisa Smile," "Smart People," and of course, more recent comedies like "Van Wilder," "Sorority Boys" and "The House Bunny," plus perplexing DTV franchise-starter "The Skulls." 

- Diana Drumm, Oliver Lyttelton, Kieran McMahon, Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor

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8 Comments

  • No | March 25, 2013 10:53 AMReply

    I've never understood Wonder Boys, and Damsels in Distress is pretty bad. Only reason I kept watching was Greta Gerwig's good looks. Social Network is one of the best movies of the last decade.

  • Bustermarx | March 22, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    What about Buster Keaton in "The College"?

  • Max | March 21, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    I got a soft spot for Legally Blonde

  • cirkusfolk | March 21, 2013 9:55 PMReply

    Wonder Boys is my absolute favorite. One you could've mentioned is Breaking Away even though its more about them not going to college. Go IU!!!!

  • Andrew | March 21, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    I just want to say how happy I am to see you that you linked a Cracked article in this piece. Great job on this list!

  • richard corliss | March 21, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    did you guys consider over the edge?

  • Kieran | March 21, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    Love that JD Salinger quote, kind of a shame there will probably never be a film or play of Franny and Zooey, so much great dialogue in that book!

  • I'm A New Yorker | March 21, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    defently my 10 favorite collage comedies are
    1-Animal House
    2-The House Bunny
    3-American Pie 2
    4-Collage(with Drake Bell)
    5-Back To School
    6-Old School
    7-Accepted
    8-Road Trip
    9-The Nutty Professor(the eddie murphy one)
    10-Pitch Perfect

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