Admission (Focus Features, PG-13)

admissions 75We are left with a romantic comedy that should have had more laughs and more romantic spark, or a dramedy that misses the mark.

 

admissions 500

Admission stars Tina Fey as a Princeton admissions officer and Paul Rudd as the head of a nontraditional high school with a promising but unconventional student seeking admission to his first-choice college. It is a fairly good romantic comedy, better than many in the genre, but it is not the raucous, nonstop comedy that audiences may expect from a long-awaited pairing of comedians Fey and Rudd. And it is clear that director Paul Weitz did not intend it to be that kind of film, despite how it is being marketed.

Rather, the film is more a dramedy in which Fey’s character struggles with who she is and what she wants. After 15 years as an admissions officer at Princeton, Portia Nathan (Fey) is in the running to succeed her boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), as the head of admissions. Portia is precise, ambitious, and emotionally cool in her job, and clearly loves the power her work gives her as a gatekeeper at a premier university. Her interaction with applicants has a rote quality, as she often recites long-memorized speeches. At home, Portia has a long-term live-in relationship with Mark (Michael Sheen), an English literature professor. Portia is not comfortable around children, especially babies, and the career-centered couple is childless by choice. Her life looks settled—until Portia reconnects with former college friend John Pressman (Rudd) during a recruiting trip to the alternative high school he runs, where she meets a gifted, unconventional student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff).

The college admissions process at a top-tier university seems like fertile ground for comedy, with the parents lobbying or trying to call in favors, eager high-achieving students’ polished applications, and everyone asking for the secret key to getting in. The comedy is there, along with a romantic subplot, but the film is more introspective, a character-driven midlife crisis story. Much of the comedy is found early on, before the story’s dramatic arc develops.

Fey is surrounded by a strong cast that also features Lily Tomlin as her ground-breaker feminist mother, Susannah. Tomlin is fabulous as Fey’s independent, unconventional, political mother, and she essentially steals the film. In their scenes together, Tomlin outshines Fey every time. Susannah sets high standards for herself, which include building her own bicycle, and expects her daughter to measure up, too. Conventional and unconventional life choices are at the heart of the various personals struggles in the story, not just between Portia and Susannah, but between Portia and John, as well.

While Portia has spent years climbing the departmental ladder in the Princeton admissions office, John has spent his post-college years traveling the world while dabbling in various good works and projects. His latest is running an alternative high school on an old farm out in the countryside. The film’s most objectionable aspect is an undercurrent suggesting that a childless but successful career woman is somehow missing out, more than a man who never put down roots in a community or focused on building a career in a single field, but the light tone and likeable characters dilute the influence of that thread.

While Tomlin crafts a wonderfully memorable character, Fey and Rudd seem to be out of their dramatic depth. Neither is quite up to the dramatic aspects the story presents or at which Weitz seems to be aiming. Their performances are adequate, but the roles and storyline had more promise. With stronger actors in the lead roles, this film had real potential to be something more.

The Fey-and-Rudd pairing also had comic potential, but with a different script and director. Essentially, Admission is a mismatch of project and cast, one that does not serve either well. We are left with a romantic comedy that should have had more laughs and more romantic spark, or a dramedy that misses the mark. Admission is a pretty good romantic comedy—but it could have been something much more. | Cate Marquis

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