I'd suspected for a while that the trailers for the latest film from director Paul Weitz (AMERICAN PIE, ABOUT A BOY, IN GOOD COMPANY) was a bit more of an emotional journey than the trailers were leading on, and I'm glad that turned out to be true. Based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz (and adapted by Karen Croner, ONE TRUE THING), ADMISSION is the story of a woman who has spent so much of her life judging others that she has forgotten to turn a critical eye on the bland life she has built for herself. But the best news about the movie is that it treats its subject and characters seriously, even when the laughs are flowing.
Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, who is possibly in line to take over the department when her boss (Wallace Shawn) retires. She receives a call from an alternative high school run by a former classmate named John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who wants her to consider one of his students for Princeton. And while it is part of her job to visit schools where possible candidates might come from to prep them for the admissions process, John has gotten her there for another reason. He suspects that his prize student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is Portia's son, whom she gave up for adoption when she was in college.
The kid is gifted for sure, but his grades are terrible, even though he tests through the roof. Portia takes a special interest in both Jeremiah and in John, to whom she forms a romantic attachment (it's Paul Rudd, of course she does). The freedom she feels to be herself runs counter to the roles that have been assigned to her for her whole life by her smothering feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) and her long-term boyfriend (a very funny smaller part for Michael Sheen), who can't stop patting Portia's head and giving her reinforcement like a pet before he leaves her for a literature professor specializing in Virginia Woolf.
As it should be, Portia's unresolved feelings about giving up her child rise to the surface and cause her to make some unwise decisions in the hopes of getting Jeremiah into Princeton. And the idea of having a son to help out and a boyfriend who actually cares about her seems too perfect to be true.
A couple of issues I had with ADMISSION have to do with its message, in that, I could never quite figure out what the message was. Fey narrates the film, so it has to have a message—them's the rules. I'm not sure what I'd learned about life from this story, and it left me feeling a bit empty or at least rudderless.
Not a criticism exactly, but Rudd is overqualified for this part. He's too funny for the comedy that is required here, but he's too good an actor to be playing someone who essentially just smiles and act roguishly charming. We know he can do this; he's been doing it since CLUELESS. There's surprisingly little depth to his character, nor is there any kind of arc. The person he ends up being by the end of the movies is pretty much the guy we met at the beginning. It's always great to see him work, but compare this role to what you'll see him do later in the year in David Gordon Green's PRINCE AVALANCHE, and you'll understand.
Still, ADMISSION has its moments, and most of them are thanks to Fey, who refuses to simply let Portia be a variation of Liz Lemon. The insecurities may be similar, but Portia is a very different person whose ability to do her job is never a source of anxiety for her. ADMISSION may leave you scratching your head about its themes, but that doesn't stop Fey and Rudd from being really strong partners in storytelling. Some may resent the lack of easy laughs, but I found it refreshing to be reminded that the two leads are also solid actors.