Tina Fey stars as Portia, a Princeton admissions adviser whose career provides her with a cozy, isolated life of academia and independence. She finds herself drawn to a young man named Jeremiah (played by Nat Wolff) whose brilliance make him a worthy Princeton candidate. Then Jeremiah’s teacher from a nearby school (Paul Rudd) offers a bombshell revelation: Jeremiah is actually Portia’s son. Suddenly, Portia’s professional ethics and guarded demeanor are challenged by the need to become a presence in Jeremiah’s life, even as he has no idea why Portia is suddenly being so nice to him.
This is Fey’s first starring role in a film since her acclaimed 30 Rock recently ended and she starred in the mediocre Baby Mama. While Admission is a better film than her last vehicle, it aims to dissect college hypocrisy and institutional snobbery in the same manner that Fey’s terrific Mean Girls put a microscope to the high school experience.
Mean Girls was one of the best films of its year and has become a classic, which won’t happen to the mild Admission. While aiming to be a cutting expose of snooty academic elitism and its gatekeepers, it winds up being as soft, sweet and forgettable as the Dennis Quaid/Ellen Page comedy Smart People.
Fey’s performance is something special, as she has some tough dramatic scenes to pull off and succeeds beautifully. Never pushing too hard with the comic or serious moments, Fey once again affirms her strengths as a down to earth and fetching comic talent. She has a nice chemistry with Rudd, even though his role isn’t as prominent as you’d hope.
Rudd’s role, like everyone else’s, is more of a caricature. While it doesn’t salvage the movie completely, everyone in the supporting cast is very good at giving life to their half-baked parts. There are fine character turns by Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben, Michael Sheen, Lily Tomlin (especially great at beefing up a corny character) and Wolff, who’s terrific in a breakout role.
None of the subplots, including the Fey/Rudd romance, the troubled mother/daughter relationship or the are-you-my-son angle, lead to outcomes with any dramatic impact. While smarter than a typical romantic comedy, the movie could have been funnier. The king of this type of movie remains Wonder Boys, the 2000 Michael Douglas comedy about campus life and the academic oddballs who are brilliant but self destructive. Whereas that film was hilarious, biting and rewarding, Admission feels neutered.
An odd problem is the editing, which tightens each scene to the point of characters not seeming to have a moment to take a breath. If director Paul Weitz was hoping for the kind of fast-paced give and take of His Girl Friday, he forgot to let it feel spontaneous.
Weitz’s recent films include About a Boy and In Good Company, superb comedies that dug deep into the lives of guarded adults. He, as well as Fey and Rudd, will bounce back from this misstep, which is too timid and lightweight to probe college hypocrisies. I’ll take Animal House any day over this.
Score : ** (1-5 star scale)
Rated PG13/117 min