Directed by Paul Weitz. Screenplay by Karen Croner; based upon the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Produced by Kerry Kohansky, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz. Music by Stephen Trask. Photographed by Declan Quinn. Edited by Joan Sobel. Production designed by Sarah Knowles. Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Michael Sheen, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Gloria Reuben, Travaris Spears.
Admission is a romantic dramedy that tries to make a case for favoritism in the college admissions process, and if you think that sounds odd, you’re not wrong. Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan, a Princeton University Admissions Officer who discovers that one of the incoming applicants is her long-lost son, and she reacts by aggressively playing the system in order to shoot him to the top of the “accepted” pile. That this could be funny is possible. That it’s meant to be seen as sweet is downright perplexing. Princeton admissions (indeed, any college admissions board) are supposed to be rigorous in their standards and impartial in their decisions, and while there are many backroom deals that occur in such places, Fey’s actions are not a solution—they’re part of the problem.
What a weird way to start a discussion of this harmless movie starring Tina Fey, right? Ok, fine. You’re right. But look, I’m going somewhere with this. Anyway, I have nothing against the applicant. Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) seems like a sweet kid. His GPA at the alternative, agricultural high school run by John Pressman (Paul Rudd) is horrid, but that’s because he “doesn’t test well.” He’s one of those kinds of kids who read voraciously to make up for his scores. But since he clearly doesn’t do well under pressure or in a traditional learning environment, maybe…he’s just not Princeton material. There’s no shame in it. The movie’s defacto villains argue as much, which means we have the curious situation of when antagonists seem much more sensible than our heroine.
The movie takes place in a universe where Princeton rejection letters are crippling blows to an education, and where other colleges don’t exist, not even Ivy Leaguers, except for one errant punchline. Yet the movie fails to generate any stakes because Princeton never seems to be that big a deal. Hell, Jeremiah doesn’t really seem to even care very much, since we barely get to know him. His primary mode in the movie is posing angelically, dispensing moderate knowledge that’s meant to be emblematic of his intimidating intelligence. John, who is a mentor for Jeremiah and has a little adopted child of his own (Travaris Spears), doesn’t really care whether Jeremiah goes to Princeton, because he’s so anti-establishment and dreamy. As for Portia, her arguments for Jeremiah’s admittance are so half-hearted and blindly slanted that…where are we supposed to stand here?
That confusion best summarizes Admission, a movie that just doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a comedy paced at quarter speed, or a drama where everyone talks like they’re in search of a punchline and scarcely register as real people. There’s a real disconnect between concept and execution when it comes to the characters here: the screenplay makes note of Portia’s inner rage and regret that informs her–she has issues with her mom (Lily Tomlin, in a wasted role) but she’s played by Fey in super-likable, uncomplicated mode. Meanwhile, John is positioned as a romantic hero, but the movie fails to realize that he’s actually a destructive, pompous idiot you would go out of your way to slap. The love story between them occurs with a shrug: they kinda sorta like each other and kinda sorta want to persue it, and we in the audience kinda sorta doesn’t care. And this all leads to a head-scratchingly off-key climax that wants us to be touched by a development that hinges on farce, and then makes a left turn into unearned sentimentality. The script is based on a novel by Jeann Hanff Korelitz, which I can only assume is better constructed than this hapless mess.
So the movie isn’t very compelling. It also isn’t funny. No wait, I take that back; there’s one gag involving a pair of bicycles and Portia’s ex that’s mildly amusing. Michael Sheen, as Portia’s ex, keeps popping into her life as if he’s sending dispatches from a better, funnier movie that’s happening next door. For the most part, Admission has a leaden comic touch, with hacky dialogue that Fey, one of the most whip-smart writers of our day, must have been embarrassed to speak. So desperate is the film for workable humor (yet so lazy to assemble it) that it makes Fey participate in a live cow birth, which is intended to be a funny joke in and of itself, and not a comic situation that could be, I dunno, built into something hysterical. The movie even imports the invaluable Wallace Shawn for a small role, and we then realize with mounting sadness that the script would be improved if it were an audiobook read by Wallace Shawn.
The movie was directed by Paul Weitz, who made American Pie, way back when, so perhaps it’s only natural that now he makes movies that are all about the comforts of warm slop. The weird thing about Weitz is that he directs Admission as if it’s his first feature, when in fact it is his ninth. He shows no visual flair, no comic sophistication, and no evidence that he’s learned much at all in his decade and a half on the beat. He’s made some fine films, like About a Boy, but he’s a filmmaker that depends upon his actors to marry themselves to the material, because he has no idea how to do it himself. I’m sure he delivered the movie on time and under budget, so no wonder why he keeps getting work. Hooray for Hollywood.
As for Tina Fey, I like her a whole lot, and now that her TV show has ended and made the world her oyster, want to see her in films better than this one. Much better. If movies were able to be used on college applications, Admission wouldn’t get someone past the first round.