Silver Screen: Admission ***1/2
Tina Fey and Paul Rudd make for a comedy-nerd superteam in Admission, a kinda romantic dramedy with a bit of an identity crisis.
The multitalented Fey has run the writer’s room at Saturday Night Live. where she coanchored Weekend Update. She also penned the pretty fantastic memoir Bossypants and was a writer, producer, and star of one of the best sitcoms of the last decade, Thirty Rock. To say she’s fared slightly worse in films is a relative comparison to her achievements elsewhere. But aside from the movie she wrote herself, Mean Girls, which came out way back when Lindsay Lohan was a viable movie star and not just a sentient impending tragedy, Fey hasn’t found vehicles ideally suited to her talent. Baby Mama was a likable misfire, and Date Night was broad, bland, and edgeless.
Fey’s role in Admission is a more layered and serious riff on the persona she’s crafted of a brainy but emotionally conflicted single woman. Portia Nathan is childless, but she’s dedicated her life to other people’s kids. The Princeton graduate stuck around her alma mater and has become one of the school’s gatekeepers. As a member of the admissions board, she culls hundreds of applications in order to pick the select few who will receive Ivy League educations. The movie gently mocks the applicants’ frenzied ambitions, but it’s not without sympathy for students trained from kindergarten to view getting into the right college as a necessary step toward the promised land. Portia takes her job seriously as well.
Director Paul Weitz nicely illustrates the pressure she feels by rendering the stacked application papers as the actual students themselves, standing before Portia to plead their case. (If not selected, they plummet through a trap door and vanish, presumably to a state school.)
Portia’s comfortable routine is interrupted twice in the same week, first when her foppish academic boyfriend (Michael Sheen) ditches her for a domineering Virginia Woolf scholar, and again when she meets do-gooding charter-school teacher John Pressman, who believes that his prized student, a quirky savant named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), may be the child Portia gave up for adoption when she was still a struggling undergrad.
The rule-abiding Portia suddenly finds herself bending all of Princeton’s policies in order to help the brilliant but nontraditional student find a spot in the freshman class. Further complicating matters is her burgeoning relationship with John-- because, you know, he’s Paul Rudd.
The lessons in Admission don’t come as easily as they may at first seem. Screenwriter Karen Croner, working from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, brings a lot of nuance to the material. The movie satirizes insular academia and the fervor it ignites in students and parents alike while still acknowledging that getting into a good school truly does provide some kids a leg up in life. Similarly, John is at first presented like a middle-aged liberal white-guy dreamboat-- polite, funny, and dedicated to Nelson (Travaris Spears), the son he adopted while on a humanitarian mission to Africa-- but his good intentions don’t necessarily translate directly into good behavior; he’s temperamental and easily frustrated by even tiny injustices.
But the movie is also overburdened with subplots and ambitions. Portia’s thorny relationship with her neo-feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) is intriguing, but it’s one more distraction in a film that already has a lot going on. Tomlin is always a welcome presence, and her interaction with Fey is rich, but it’s the sort of tangent better suited to the broader scope of a novel rather than the streamlined structure of a movie. Weitz conjures up both solid jokes and dramatic moments, but he’s not always able to find a balance between the two. Admission never quite achieves the harmony of insight and humor found in another Paul Rudd movie examining the perils of the modern liberal lifestyle, the wildly underrated Wanderlust from director David Wain.
Despite its imperfections, there’s a lot to like about Admission, which in many ways is about coming to terms with imperfect successes. Rudd and Fey are a dream team, even if their romance too often takes a backseat to the myriad other plotlines, and young Wolff is convincingly charming but awkward as the young savant. If Admission was a college application, it would only be good enough to land a spot at a safety school-- but only because its merits, like Jeremiah’s, are tough to quantify.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.