This question is posed by a desperate Princeton applicant to Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) early in the new comedy Admission. Portia, you see, is a 16-year veteran of the Princeton admissions office, and is thus in a position to know. Her platitudinous advice to the student is to "just be yourself," though she will subsequently confide, in voiceover, that "there is no secret."
But over the course of two uneven, morally confused hours, Admission will suggest that there is, in fact, a secret. (Mild spoilers follow, but I'll endeavor not to give away any more than the trailer and, I suspect, the majority of reviews.) The secret to getting into Princeton is to be the unknowing son—long ago given away for adoption—of a Princeton admissions officer who is willing to break every conceivable rule in order to get you in. So there you go, ambitious high-schoolers of America! It may be a tough trick, but if you can pull it off, an Ivy League diploma is as good as yours.
When we first meet Portia, her life is defined by its comfortable dullness. She's been living with the head of the English department (Michael Sheen) for 10 years in a friendly but evidently sexless relationship. (An ongoing gag is that he pats her on the head like a dutiful retriever.) Her boss at the admissions office is stepping down, and he announces that she's one of two candidates to rise into his job. You can cut the excitement with a spoon.
But chaos rears its snaky heads when Portia receives a phone call from an old college classmate, John (Paul Rudd), who runs an alternative school in New England. He believes that one of his students, an autodidact named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), may be the child Portia put up for adoption years before, when she was herself in college. Jeremiah visits Princeton, and everyone agrees that it's just the place for a brilliant oddball like himself. (Having gone there myself, I take some issue with this notion.) But how in the world will Jeremiah get in, given his patchy scholastic record and profound lack of extracurricular accomplishments? Well, Portia, guilty over having given him away, will cheat—a little at first, and then a lot—on his behalf.
This is a premise that could work as drama (look, in sadness, at the depths to which she's sunk) or dark comedy (look, in hilarity, at the depths to which she'll stoop!). But it doesn't work as a lightweight dramedy about a likable protagonist who makes a few bad decisions because her life is suddenly more complicated than expected. Screwing over other applicants in order to get your favored candidate admitted is hardly a goofy misdemeanor.
This might not be such a problem if Admission presented itself merely as a screwball comedy. But it clearly aspires to be an Apatowian, Bridesmaids-y movie that has something to say about How We Live Now. Among its concluding lessons is the truism that we should not focus too much on accomplishments such as getting into Princeton, that life offers many paths to fulfillment, etc., etc.
The question that drives much of the narrative is not "Will Jeremiah get into Princeton or will he have to go to a (for him) marginally less appealing school?" There's no suggestion that he even applies to any other colleges.The problem is that by the time the movie offers this sermon, it has spent an hour and 45 minutes treating Jeremiah's admission as an issue of unfathomable urgency. The question that drives much of the narrative is not "Will Jeremiah get into Princeton or will he have to go to a (for him) marginally less appealing school?" There's no suggestion that he even applies to any other colleges. Rather, the implicit message is that he will either get into Princeton, where his innate genius will flourish, or he'll wind up working at the Stop 'n' Go convenience store run by his adoptive parents. (The film also highlights its absurd educational Manichaeism in one of its better set pieces, when the admissions committee is considering applicants, who materialize in the room and, if rejected, are dropped down an imaginary shaft. It's a decent image—until you realize that the "shaft" leads not to some hellish oblivion but to Brown or Berkeley or Swarthmore or any of a few dozen other top schools.)
Moral confusions aside, Admission's greater crime is that it isn't very funny. As so often seems the case with contemporary comedies about unmarried women, the movie spends much of its running time heaping humiliation and indignity upon its protagonist. (Another ongoing gag is that whenever Portia hits an exceptionally low point—throwing up outside an undergrad party, sobbing uncontrollably, etc.—her ex-boyfriend and his bitchy new gal happen to wander by. Funny!) There are several obvious jokes about the superstar high-achievers who apply to Princeton ("and my father is Cuban, and in a wheelchair") and the snotty legacy cases as well. At the other, comparably hilarious end of the sociopolitical spectrum is Paul's alternative school, where he teaches his kids to build irrigation systems from hewn logs and has Portia help him deliver a breached calf. (Gross!) All too frequently, Admission serves as an object lesson in the risks of having a non-comic writer (Karen Croner, whose other screenplay to date was the cancer drama One True Thing) adapt a non-comic novel (by Jean Hanff Korelitz), and handing the result to a director, Paul Weitz, whose last comedy was Little Fockers.
There are amusements to be found along the way. Both Fey and Rudd are better than the material they're given, and Lily Tomlin and Olek Krupa have a few wicked moments apiece as Portia's feminist mom and a philosophy professor who's admired her from afar. Moreover, the movie is right on the nose in pointing out that there is no unhappy moment in life that cannot be made unhappier still by one's stumbling upon a Princeton a capella group singing "Tigertown Blues" beneath a gothic arch.
But such diversions are not enough. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more glaringly an argument between extremes: the stagnant, risk-averse Portia, who gave up a child for adoption, versus the rootless, wandering Paul, who adopted a child and now drags the kid all over the globe in a quest for purpose. The moms are these two caricatures inverted: Tomlin, vehemently anti-conformist, with her Bella Abzug tattoo and aversion to "mother-daughter role-playing crap"; Paul's mom (Lisa Emery), wealthy and shrewish, notable chiefly for her lawn jockeys. (Retrograde!) Even Krupa's urbane, free-spirited intellectual must be balanced out by petty, small-minded admissions officers (Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben) and a smugly preppie alumni adviser (Brian D'Arcy James). These abstractions with faces—and the easy pieties they embody—wear out their welcome long before the credits roll.
What is most distressing about Admission, though, is that it serves as further evidence that Tina Fey, despite her dominance of the small screen, has not yet mastered the big one. Baby Mama, Date Night—neither was awful, but neither lived up to an average episode of 30 Rock. The lesson offered by her best film, Mean Girls, would seem to be that she ought to write her own screenplays. Alas, her immediate plans post-30 Rock include more roles in movies written by others (The Muppets...Again!, a re-teaming with Steve Carell in Mail Order Bride) and the planned creation of another show for NBC. Bottom line: The quality gap between her work on the little screen and the big may not close anytime soon.
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