Worth the Admission
By Carl Kozlowski
After spending six years as the creator, producer, writer and star of the instant-classic sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey could be forgiven if she wanted to take it easy and make a breezy comedy. Following stellar turns at satirizing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, writing a bestselling and critically acclaimed memoir, Bossypants, and an outstanding hosting gig with Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes, the world is Fey’s oyster.
Rather than kick back, she actually raises her game as an actor opposite ubiquitous leading man Paul Rudd in the new movie Admission. Yet, it seems, it’s in tackling a highbrow comedy (a film so smart it’s released by Universal Pictures’ arthouse division, Focus Features) that she winds up with a film that feels like it could have been produced by NPR: It will make you chuckle more often than laugh aloud.
In the film, which is more of a dramedy about ethics than a formulaic rom-com, Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University who has lived a boring but content life over the past decade with her live-in boyfriend, Mark. However, her life gets shaken up after the dean of admissions makes two key announcements: He’s retiring, and since Princeton has just suffered the dishonor of slipping, he’ll fill his position with the admissions officer who can bring in the most outstanding students.
Thus, Portia, now locked in an intense competition for the coveted job, finds herself in a rather odd situation on her annual recruiting trip. She agrees to meet a sensitive oddball named Jeremiah at an alternative high school that’s run like a hippie commune, at the request of her former college classmate, John (Paul Rudd), but there’s a surprise twist.
Portia believes she’s meeting Jeremiah because he’s just a unique prospect, but John then reveals that he believes Jeremiah is Portia’s son—the nearly secret baby she gave up for adoption while they were in college together. As she gets to know John, she has to decide whether to come clean about her past and whether to bend the rules for him to get into Princeton, even though he doesn’t quite deserve admission.
As comic relief, she’s also torn about her feelings for John versus her live-in boyfriend and must spend her down time awkwardly with her iconoclastic mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin). But while one might expect that this will be just another in an endless stream of interchangeable comic romances, Admission adds detours that make it an unpredictable and surprisingly thoughtful study in ethics as well.
Working from a script by Karen Croner that is based on an eponymous novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission has a rich sense of place and a deep bench of cleverly conceived characters. But it’s in its second half, as Portia wrestles with her own past and the future of the young man who may be her son, that the movie is even richer, as unforeseen complications threaten nearly every part of her life.
Director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) keeps things moving pleasantly, but it’s a problem that the film gets more zing out of its supporting cast—especially Tomlin, who proves to be an unending font of outrageous comments on feminism and hippie ideals—than it does from the interplay between Fey and Rudd.
This isn’t to say Admission is a bad film, by any means. In fact, it’s noble that someone has made the extra effort to produce a brainy comedy, one with plot twists resulting in an ending most will not expect.
Consider it a strong contender for your precious entertainment dollar, but not a shoe-in.