Like all right-thinking persons, I adore Tina Fey. Yet for all her glorious work on TV, she still hasn’t made the great comedy film that we all know her to be capable of. Her latest, Admission, falls agonizingly short of greatness, but it’s still much better than Date Night or Baby Mama. You might mistake the movie for a standard-issue romantic comedy if you see the TV ads, but it is in fact much heavier and more interesting than that.
She portrays Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer whose longtime boyfriend (a delightfully wormy Michael Sheen) ditches her just before her office starts sifting through applicants for the fall term. Throwing herself into her work, she meets John (Paul Rudd), the head of a newly established nontraditional school in the middle of the New England countryside. After letting her give his students a recruiting pitch, he drops a bombshell on her: His eccentric, self-taught, savant-like student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is the baby whom Portia gave up for adoption when she was in college 17 years before. Now Jeremiah wants to apply to Princeton.
What I like best about this movie is the complex characters drawn in Karen Croner’s script, based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’ novel. John is a rich kid-turned-globe-trotting do-gooder whose 12-year-old adopted son (Travaris Spears) resents the hell out of their itinerant lifestyle, while Portia’s mom (Lily Tomlin) is a renowned feminist scholar who, try as she might, can’t hide her disappointment with her daughter. Before discovering Jeremiah, Portia herself is charmingly unflappable, whether she’s handling an audience of hostile schoolkids or reacting to her boyfriend when he patronizingly pats her on her head. This is mixed with some tart observations about the college admissions process, with Portia saying, “It’s like we’re some final referendum on people’s parenting skills.” A British professor (Sonya Walger) goes further, giving a chilly assessment of the whole American system: The British “just do tests. We don’t care about your recent conversion to Buddhism. … Gray matter is what counts.”
This is a lot to like and more than enough to recommend the movie. Yet the central joke here — the experience turns Portia into the same sort of helicopter parent whom she’s always trying to fend off — doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. It makes sense that Portia comes to treat Jeremiah’s acceptance to Princeton as a matter of life or death, but it’s not clear why the movie seems to share that thinking. There are other schools, no?
Pairing Fey with Rudd is a great idea on paper, but that doesn’t come off either. Romance doesn’t seem to be her strength. In fact, the role itself might be too much of a stretch. Portia is a fundamentally sensible woman who’s acting unhinged because she’s going through a bad patch. Fey is a fundamentally sensible actor who gives the role a good whack, but she can’t quite reach critical mass. I can’t help but think a leading lady more comfortable with losing control (Amy Poehler, perhaps?) would have delivered better results. It’s a shame how closely this movie misses its chance, but it’s still the best Tina Fey movie in my book. That’s not nothing.
Starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Directed by Paul Weitz. Written by Karen Croner, based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’ novel. Rated PG-13.