'Admission': The Pains of Princeton

Today we review the new Tina Fey movie Admission, an odd balancing act between a college admissions comedy (with a hint of drama) and a parenting drama (with some comedy).

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In the watery new comedy/drama Admission, characters regularly travel from Princeton, New Jersey to what I'm guessing is somewhere in southern New Hampshire as casually as you might drive to the local supermarket. That's a five hour trip! And yet it's made over and over again throughout the movie without so much as a "Boy, I've been doing a lot of driving lately." It's part of a fault in detail that runs throughout much of the film, knocking something off course that could otherwise have been a piquant, bittersweet little film. But alas not much can flourish in a world that's only half-formed.

In the film, Tina Fey plays Portia, another of the comedienne's buttoned-up, neurotic women, gals who need to loosen up and live in the now. There's essentially little difference between Portia and Fey's character in Baby Mama, except their jobs are different and the thing Portia wants is a little less clearly defined. A Princeton admissions counselor with a live-in English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen), Portia lives by rules and strict practices. We can see that her relationship is in trouble — he's not into it, they've gotten boring and routine — and she's clearly up for some embarrassments at work, as the head of admissions (Wallace Shawn) is retiring and the list of possible replacements is down to Portia and her hard-charging coworker (Gloria Reuben). What will give this ordered but obviously fragile life the disruption it so needs? Paul Rudd, of course.

Rudd plays John, the do-gooder headmaster of a progressive alternative school in New Hampshire, one with cow milking and robot building and basically whatever the hell the kids want. John lures Portia to the school for the ostensible purpose of giving the kids a talk about Princeton, but naturally he has ulterior motives. Portia and John were at Dartmouth at around the same time and John knows a secret: In college, Portia had a baby and gave it up for adoption. John now thinks that one of his students, the exceptionally bright but oddball Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is that long-lost son. And so the drama ratchets up, with Portia taking a liking to the kid and making it her mission to get him into Princeton — which has suddenly become his dream — despite his bad grades and lack of extracurriculars. Thus Admission becomes an odd balancing act between a college admissions comedy (with a hint of drama) and a parenting drama (with some comedy). The film isn't sure which way to go, and neither storyline is drawn terribly clearly, so everyone is left muddling around somewhere in the middle.

On the admissions side of things, there's a credibility problem. These may be picky details, but that's where both god and the devil live, right? College applications are generally due in the fall or winter, depending on whether you're applying early decision, early action, etc. And yet Admission exists in a land where time is immaterial. Coats are worn at various points, but otherwise it seems to be perpetual summer. Also bugging me: Jeremiah, who is certainly some kind of prodigy, doesn't seem to apply to any other schools. It's all hinged on Princeton, which is a pretty irresponsible thing for Rudd's character to let happen. I've little insight into how the actual admissions process works behind closed doors, but the method on display in Admission seem awfully quaint and cutesy for one of the best schools in the land, and for an office processing some thirty thousand applications in a matter of months. If the movie is going to be about college admissions, then it should be about actual college admissions, y'know?

The trouble is, it's really not a movie about college admissions. Though Fey does give a teary and impassioned speech trying to win her colleagues to Jeremiah's cause, the bulk of the film's drama exists in its ruminations on parenthood. Portia is the product of a radical feminist single mother (Lily Tomlin) and holds many deep-seated resentments about her upbringing. Of course she is also quietly torn up about the baby she gave away, though the gravity of the past is only related when narratively convenient. This is pretty serious, non-comedic stuff we're talking about here, but Weitz turns the drama on and off bluntly and without warning. There's also a subplot about Paul Rudd and his adopted son, who is sick of his father's nomadic lifestyle and desperately craves some stability. So we're dealing with the failings of parents here, which I guess feeds into the admissions plotline in terms of parents burdening their children with big hopes and expectations. But really there are two different stories competing for attention here and this is too slight a film to thoroughly tell both.

Which isn't to say that there aren't good things here. Fey proves herself a respectable dramatic actress in the movie's more serious stretches; in fact the novelty of seeing her in this mode is entirely more engaging than most of the wan comedy bits. Weitz creates a comfy, cozy environment for his actors, though I'm still waiting for him to make good on the promise he showed over a decade ago with the marvelous About a Boy. He's clearly got a taste for mainstream dramedies, which is a fine impulse to have — James L. Brooks has made several terrific movies in the genre. And I'd say that he probably comes closest to realizing his goals with Admission. But there's a sloppiness at the edges of the film that distracts throughout. Still, there are a few undeniably poignant moments in the film, all involving Fey; who, again, I encourage wholeheartedly to experiment with more dramatic work. The film's closing scene is especially well done, wistful and bittersweet, a tone I wish the film as a whole was able to strike. We are dealing with hopes and dreams and regrets here, after all. That's rich stuff. But alas Admission fails to realize its potential.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.