“This parenthood thing…I’m screwing it up.”
Paul Weitz’s Admission is loaded with talent but never elevates beyond the serviceable charmer that the promotionals make it appear to be. It’s a bona fide dramedy about a Princeton admissions officer, Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), who goes to visit a backwoods technical school founded a couple of years ago by an Earth-loving do-gooder, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). While there, she’s evidently out of her element but she strikes a friendship with John that starts to complicate after he confides her in that one of his students – a brilliant left-brainer named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) – may be her abandoned son that she gave up after a secret childbirth in college. Co-starring lovably familiar faces like Wallace Shawn, Lily Tomlin, and Michael Sheen, Admission will surely mold a smile on your face from time to time and leave you somewhat endeared, though things get morally conflicted as it enters its critical third act. It likes to switch between light and heavy as quickly as any applicant can be tossed out by an elitist university, eventually dumping itself into a surprisingly unfortunate conclusion. And yet, it thrives on striking chemistry between its two leads and features a phenomenal serious turn from Paul Rudd.
To begin with the film’s headliners; Tina Fey delivers a performance far more serious than we may have ever seen her. The 30 Rock creator and lead actress puts on her serious face for this one as the no-nonsense admissions officer who is also fighting with a co-worker for a promotion in addition to dealing with the fiasco that Rudd’s John tosses into her hands. She shares scenes with Michael Sheen, donning a salt-and-pepper beard and portraying Fey’s longtime boyfriend. He’s a timid literature professor whose secretive actions give him a pretentious edge and are reminiscent of his hot-headed Paul from Midnight in Paris. Once Rudd gets involved with Fey, trying to work with her on breaking the surprising news to Jeremiah – who knows that he was abandoned at a young age and adopted by kind, caring, yet very uneducated parents – the movie creates a sweet rhythm. Rudd, who I’ve always adored as a supporting character, delivers a fantastic lead performance. He’s toned down, dryly humorous, and endlessly charming. He’s nicely balanced by Fey and the two make an amiable screen couple. The “inconceivable” Wallace Shawn lacks screen time but any Princess Bride fan like myself is happy to see him pop up in anything, and Lily Tomlin gets the showiest and most rambunctious role as Fey’s tree-hugging mother. She’s an absolute riot.
Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s original novel, Karen Croner’s adaptation is decent enough for a film but deserves more polishing when performers of Rudd’s and Fey’s caliber are reading it. The duo raises it up to its fullest, but Croner’s writing for drama outweighs her ability to craft humor…plus – not sure whether to blame Croner or Korelitz – a bold character action during the film’s climax raises some real questions about apologetic parenting and potential bias rampant within collegiate admissions offices. If it wasn’t for Fey and Rudd, Admission would be totally laughless, and even with the two of them most of the jokes turn into forced chuckles. The drama is genuine, thankfully, but I would have preferred to see Korelitz’s prose adapted by Weitz or even Fey herself. Regarding Weitz, he’s one half of the up-and-down brotherly directing pair – his brother is The Golden Compass and New Moon director, Chris Weitz. Paul Weitz debuted with American Pie, but has disappointed in recent years with sappy flicks like Being Flynn and American Dreamz as well as the abysmal Little Fockers. Yet, his voice would have been welcomed behind the screenplay, especially with a hand from Chris (the last time the duo collaborated on a screenplay adaptation, it was About a Boy, which awarded them both a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination). Directorially, the film has a woodish brown tint overlayed, but it’s choppily edited, flipping back and forth between characters providing more reaction shots and more dialogue deliveries than it really needs. Sounds like a minor concern but it actually is more jarring than one would expect. Still, this is a more a step in the right direction for Paul Weitz than his last two features.
Admission isn’t a flawless portfolio despite its prominent transcript of talent on screen and working in the wings. Unfortunately, it’s just a few extracurriculars and AP classes short of allowable entrance into an Ivy league university, but it’s got enough merit to get the stamp of approval from a nice state school. With visible chemistry from Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, hopefully this will get the ball rolling on another project featuring the two of them, one with snappy and creative dialogue and a more human and morally sound narrative progression…and maybe even Lorne Michaels or Judd Apatow on board as a producer. Also, the noteworthy Nat Wolff needs a stronger movie too, and here’s to hoping that his next appearance – Crazy, Stupid, Love doppelganger, Stuck in Love – gives him a serious breakout. He could be the American Nicholas Hoult. Admission possesses some subtle jabs at the college admissions process and even has an extended sequence showing, more or less, how the final decision is made for annual applicants, but this isn’t a movie primed with social commentary with its targets set on real-life admissions offices. This is a serviceable date movie with a nice cast and some red-marked errors that are in need of some editing before the final draft is due.
Admission is definitely acceptable, but it’s not getting awarded a scratch-and-sniff “Good Job!” sticker from me.
Review by Mike Murphy