Director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy") has teamed up with two comedic powerhouses to create an oddly tepid indie comedy called "Admission" which is, among a number of things, about the college admission process. Yeah, I know. Sounds like a whole ball of excitement. That said, the result is an often amusing if not wholly successful movie that features some great comedic actors - even though those actors don’t always gel together.
Tina Fey ("30 Rock") stars as Portia Nathan, a Princeton Admissions officer hoping to take over the Dean of Admissions’ (Wallace Shawn) job when he retires. Her goal is to find the strongest candidates for admission to the college so Princeton can go from the #2 school, back to the #1 spot. She is a bit of a recluse, focusing mainly on work and spending time with her long-term boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen), a literature professor. But when Mark tells her he’s leaving her for his pregnant mistress, she fully engages herself in her work and takes off on a tour of high schools to give them a look at what Princeton has to offer.
Soon enough, she is reconnected with former college classmate John Pressman (Paul Rudd) who runs an alternative high school called New Quest that will be sending its first graduating class of students to a university. More of a "hands-on" and "question everything" type of free-form school, Portia doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Worse still, she stays nearby with her overbearing hippie mother (Lily Tomlin) with whom she has long standing issues. As a result, she is more than happy to take Mark up on his f dinner invitation that night and the two meet up. It is then that Mark reveals that he thinks one of his most gifted students might be the son she gave up for adoption during college. Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), an unusual kid who was self-taught from an early age and had mostly D grades in school, joined the New Quest school and suddenly flourished. For this reason, Mark wants Jeremiah to apply to Princeton. With the knowledge that Jeremiah might be her son, this puts Portia in a compromising position.
Ultimately, the film meanders through issues of job ethics, personal responsibility, relationship healing, new love, and finding the parent inside. That’s a lot to work through in an hour and forty-five minutes, and here, it proves to be more than Weitz can pull off.
Fey is brilliant in comedy. The problem here is that, while she’s good, she’s playing a slight variation on characters she’s played before. Not only that, she has trouble reining in the edgy, sarcastic humor that is her trademark. In films like "Baby Mama" and "Date Night" that style of comedy works. In the type of film that aims for a more serious style of comedy, it doesn’t. Rudd is more effective as the earnest and earthy-crunchy teacher as he has easily shuffled between over-the-top comedy ("Anchorman") and more serious fare ("The Object of My Affection.") That’s not to say Fey isn’t a treat, but the fit isn’t quite right; nor is the chemistry with Rudd. While both are attractive and likeable, they seem more like brother and sister than potential lovers, making the romance sub-plot feel forced.
The biggest problem with the film is that, just like Fey, Weitz can’t figure out the film’s tone. There are moments where it starts to get zany like "Bridesmaids" but then they suddenly pull back. A lot of the one-liners and jokes misfire because they don’t feel genuine for the type of movie this is. Not to mention, the editing of these moments seems off-balance, resulting in the comedy falling flat.
The serious issues such as Portia’s reluctance to being a mother, as well as her past problems with her own mother, don’t feel as though they’ve been explored enough to have any emotional weight. In a way, the film seems to have too many ideas and issues. Each one could have its own film. Is this about the college admission’s process ? (Certainly there is a big comedy in there.) Or is it about a woman’s guilt at giving up her baby for adoption and trying to reconnect? Or is it about a woman who has been dumped and finds love again?
All of this said, it’s certainly an entertaining movie and, despite her not being the standout she usually is, Fey is still enjoyable to watch. This is a film to catch on cable, not one to rush to the theatre to see. It’s nice that Fey is stretching her wings to try something not usually in her wheelhouse, but she needs a director who knows how to steer her in one direction and keep her there. That goes for the script as well.