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 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.