There’s a temptation in writing about Admission to make it all about Tina Fey. This is a mistake on several levels; she’s only contributing to the film in an acting capacity, for one, and for another she’s watchable even though she’s essentially playing the exact same role she’s predicated her entire career on. Admission itself is the product of Karen Croner’s script, adapting Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2009 novel of the same name, and Paul Weitz’s direction, which can be described as “incongruous” at best. That’s where the real conversation lies, but if you find yourself winding around back to Fey, there’s a good reason for that. She’s one half of the likability equation that makes Admission tolerable.
The other, of course, is Paul Rudd, ageless leading funny man and all-around nice guy. If there’s a reason to see Admission, it’s them; they’re a wonderful screen pairing, but not so extraordinary that they rise above the humdrum of the film’s plot. Weitz has assembled a fairly boilerplate Hollywood feel-good “indie” picture designed to push the two of them together and usher them toward a mostly obvious climax in which they choose to become a couple, even though their choice isn’t really much of one at all. It’s funny at times, too dull for words at others, and almost completely calorie-free, and that airiness could itself be a topic worthy of conversation in light of Fey’s recent career moves. Is leaving 30 Rock behind her really worth it if it means starring in films that are this empty?
Admission follows Fey around almost exclusively as she plays Portia, an uptight admissions officer at Princeton in desperate need of unwinding. She’s Liz Lemon’s twin sister, romantically, socially, and professionally awkward to the utmost limits of what’s reasonably believable. Admittedly, Portia at least appears to be with-it on the surface, but it’s a thin veneer that the movie shines a harsh light on almost immediately. A routine recruiting trip takes her to an alternative high school set in the middle of nowhere and led by John Pressman (Rudd), the charming and easy-going foil to Portia’s quiet neuroses; we find out that she not only had a son as a teenager and gave him up for adoption, but also that the young man happens to attend John’s hippie dippie (and altogether fantastic) institution.
Weitz kicks the plot off from there, and it’s a mixed bag of just about every single plot beat and narrative element you can think of. In Portia’s defense, everybody loves Paul Rudd, so it’s hard to fault her for falling over heels for him, and besides that you tend to get what you pay for with studio comedies. But everything about their courtship feels rote no matter how much fun it is to watch Fey and Rudd interact, and when a personal conflict wrought by a random and somewhat unexpected third act revelation threatens to tear them apart, their inevitable reconciliation falls with a resounding thud and the rest of the film plods on dutifully and joylessly.
So maybe that means things could have been worse. Admission could have gone all the way with its contrivances and swung for the saccharine fences. That it doesn’t- that the film marches its way toward an open-ended climax- works slightly in Weitz’s favor, striking a nice contrast with the story’s otherwise breezy tenor. But that ultimately only highlights the barrenness of his storytelling. What, exactly, does Admission exist to convey? That all parents screw up their child-rearing duties at one point or another? That the ivy league system is nothing but a meritocratic sham? Or that middle-aged white people are the causes of their own discontent?
Weitz plays with such an unpredictable mixture of melodrama, po-faced social commentary, and toothless comedy that the message- whatever it is- never really matters. The real problem is that Admission doesn’t often bother with being funny. Maybe that’s a fault of the original book (though as I haven’t read it, I couldn’t tell you), but a movie with a cast this stacked should at least consistently manage to make its audience laugh. There are some stand-out moments and players, mind; Michael Sheen, playing Portia’s boyfriend and then ex, Mark, walks into each scene with bug-eyed panic and exists in constant fear of his mistress, a silently acrimonious and twins-pregnant Sonya Walger. She and he combine to represent Admission‘s only running gag, and one of its few successful ones.
Meanwhile, Lily Tomlin shows up here and there to provide Portia with a mother. She’s living in her own self-possessed reality, one in which individualism and feminism are the ruling authorities and a dual-mastectomy is the rational immediate response to the remotest possibility of breast cancer. (Because it pays to be sure.) Put simply, she’s a delight, and the entire film comes to life whenever she walks into the frame, which isn’t nearly often enough. She’s lovably wacko, and the film sorely needed more of her, or at least the sort of off-kilter spirit she brings to her role.
That leaves Fey and Rudd- but mostly Fey, since this is her movie. Admission comes dangerously close to giving Rudd a real character to chew on, but it chickens out and he does the best with the anemic material he’s given. Fey, on the other hand, plays up her alternating desperation and exasperation wonderfully, and she maintains a level of very un-Lemon dignity in the face of all the mild ignominies Portia suffers. But what kind of film is she performing for? Even on NBC Fey had bite, she had an edge; this is the safer version of Fey, and while she’s quite good we’re poorer for the fact that the most Admission lets her get away with is a single errant f-bomb. Maybe another director would have given her more to say.