(by Dustin Putman
An incisive film about an elite university's cutthroat process of choosing each academic year's aspiring students, "Admission" is at its best when it is simply following the day-to-day occupational ins and outs of its protagonist, Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey). She is a committed, hard-working woman who prides herself on her knowledge and work ethic without ever coming off as smarmy or better than anyone else. In her late-thirties and happily childless, Portia thinks she is safe in her long-term relationship with Mark (Michael Sheen), but doesn't feel the need to define herself through the man by her side. It's a stimulating approach to a main character, but it unfortunately doesn't last. Pretty soon, Mark is out, having had a sneaky affair and impregnated the controlling Helen (Sonya Walger) as a result, and in comes the kind, handsome and disarming John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the head of an unorthodox private school called New Quest. In another time, in another place, in another movie, Tina Fey (2010's "Date Night") and Paul Rudd (2012's "Wanderlust") might be just right for each other. In this film, their romance seems shoehorned in and almost a betrayal of Portia's mounting independence. It is by far the most conventional and least interesting thing in the otherwise pleasantly articulate "Admission."
For sixteen years, Portia has been one of the top admissions officers at Princeton, and now she and colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben) are both in the running to take over the position of Dean of Admissions from the soon-retiring Clarence (Wallace Shawn). Comfortable and maybe slightly complacent in her life, Portia is thrown for a loop when she is invited to speak at John's New Quest School, and then told in confidence that the prospective Princeton applicant she's just met, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is really the son she once gave up for adoption. Jeremiah has a lot working against him—before his senior year, his GPA was a 1.5—but recently he's blossomed under John's mentorship, done remarkably well on his SATs, and received the highest score on all his AP exams. A prodigy in love with learning new things, Jeremiah wants nothing more than to get into the Ivy League college. As Portia befriends him and comes to term with what she knows, she must make a series of tough decisions in order to see his dream come true. At some point, she also must tell him the truth about her identity.
Notice in the above synopsis that there is no mention of the picture's Portia-John romantic comedy leanings? That is because it could be taken right out without affecting the rest of the narrative—surefire proof that it wasn't needed. Based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, "Admission" wrestles quite a bit over what it wants to be. Screenwriter Karen Croner (1998's "One True Thing") isn't so sure herself, unable to believably build the relationship between these two people in an organic way that would spell love and a future (and no, the two of them delivering a newborn calf is not this writer's idea of effective foreplay). Too often, the script appears to be tugging them in a direction they otherwise wouldn't think to go in, lest the film not be as commercial as the makers wish for it to be. As is, it's not the laugh fest it's being promoted as, the humor deriving from the wry performances and honesty of certain situations but otherwise playing second banana beneath the drama of its character study. It is at this level where the film falls into place and delivers.
Tina Fey has a way about her that is truthful, unforced, and frequently sublime, but because of these traits it is also easier to catch her playing below her normal intelligence. Such is the case in the scenes after Mark walks out on her and she falls into a brief downward spiral of self-pity. Before this break-up, their live-in relationship has been portrayed as blatantly all wrong, right down to the way he keeps patting her on the head and using pet analogies to describe her. Also less than seamless: Portia falling into John's bed. It doesn't work. No matter, Fey has crafted a multifaceted and root-worthy character in Portia Nathan, and it is she that carries the audience through. As John, Paul Rudd is the unfair recipient of a character who simply doesn't come to life as he should. This isn't Rudd's fault—he does what is asked of him, and well—but a deficiency in the conception of his role. Playing Portia's erratic feminist mother Susannah, Lily Tomlin (2009's "The Pink Panther 2") is a welcome face who does manage to take a slightly contrived part and make the person she is playing real and understated (even in her occasional broadness).
With "Admission," the soulless, out-to-lunch Paul Weitz of 2010's miserable "Little Fockers" is gone, replaced by the sane and talented Paul Weitz of 2002's "About a Boy" and 2004's "In Good Company." These are the sorts of films he excels at as a director—small, character-centric slices-of-life—and the ones he'd be best off continuing to helm. As Portia's fight for Jeremiah's acceptance into Princeton intensifies and some final corkscrews in the plot revealed, there are surprising stakes and emotions raised that don't quite lead to where one expects them to. And, although she and John have what appears to be a happily-ever-after, Portia's more notable triumph is in what she learns about herself, sacrificing her reputation and perhaps career over what she feels in her gut to be the right choice. "Admission" is rough around the edges, but hits the spot otherwise, a film that sneaks up and charms the most when it opts for naturalism over trying too hard.
March 22nd, 2013 (wide)
July 9th, 2013 (DVD)
Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin
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Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material.