A film review by Craig J. Koban April 3, 2013
2013, PG-13, 117 mins.
2013, PG-13, 117 mins.
Portia Nathan: Tina Fey /
John Pressman: Paul Rudd /
Jeremiah: Nat Wolff/
Susannah: Lily Tomlin /
On paper, ADMISSION should have been a relative home run.
After all, it
stars two immensely likeable leads in Tiny Fey and Paul Rudd and was
directed Paul Weitz, the same man that gave us the underrated IN
GOOD COMPANY. ADMISSION
also contains an unendingly good premise that’s ripe for comedic
exploration (the intensely competitive dog-eat-dog world of the top-tier
college admissions process). Unfortunately,
all of the good will and great on-screen chemistry generated by the film’s stars is all for naught for how the
film wallows through a TV sitcom worthy script of contrivances.
That, and ADMISSION can’t really decide what it wants to be about
in the end, which makes it feel largely unbalanced and tonally
just can’t decide if
it wants to hone its creative crosshairs on being a nail-biting college
admissions satire or a searing family drama or a sweet and
tender romcom or a combination of all of those entities.
I believe that ADMISSION would have been that much stronger if it
focused more on being a hilarious commentary on Princeton University's
ultra strict admission practices and just ignored its more flaccid and disinteresting
subplots. Regretfully, the
whole idea of tapping into the insular microcosm of how students and their
families go to extraordinary lengths to ensure college enrolment seems
kind of delegated to the sidelines in favor of the script’s more
obligatory and clichéd elements. There
is a razor sharp satire with a real ravenous bite at the heart of
ADMISSION; it’s just too far buried under soft-pedaled comedy and even weaker drama.
resoundingly well cast Tiny Fey – so inspired and naturally funny on
TV’s 30 ROCK – plays Portia Nathan, a take-no-prisoners and
emotionally detached college admissions officer that has been working for
Princeton for nearly 20 years. She
maintains an unwavering status quo of personally detaching herself from all prospective applicants in an effort
to not taint the whole process. All
she cares about is the coveted position of Dean of Admissions, which will
be vacant when the current one (Wallace Shawn) retires.
Portia seems like a shoe-in, but she faces tough competition in the
form of a ruthlessly determined co-worker (Gloria Reuben) that’s also
vying for the cherished position.
life gets complicated when she decides to visit the uber progressive New
Quest school, which seems to border on being more of a hippie commune than
a place of higher learning. Heading up the college is John Pressman (the inexhaustibly
charming and sly Rudd) who is deeply proud of his school and his fellow
students (one of the film’s most cunningly funny scenes shows the very
smart and aware students rip Portia and her slick slide presentation of
Princeton apart). While there,
Portia comes in contact with one of John’s most praised students,
Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), who - despite his relatively poor school
grades - displays strong signs of being intellectually gifted (his SATs are almost perfect).
The more Portia investigates this highly irregular student – who
dreams to attend Princeton, even though he faces an uphill admissions
battle – she discovers that the kid may or may not have been the same baby she had 18
years ago and gave up for adoption. Worse yet, she becomes smitten with the down-to-earth good
looks and amiableness of John. Having
a fling with the Dean of another school while also dealing with being the
potential mother of a Princeton applicant makes Portia’s job increasingly difficult.
Fey and Rudd share the screen together is a pleasure, mostly for how low
key they both are at playing scenes for laughs.
Fey in particular is adept at never overplaying even outlandish
moments to get a chuckle, as is the case, for example, in early scenes
when she has deal with her ex-live-in-boyfriend (a hilariously smarmy
Michael Sheen) literally treating her like a dog (he pats her on the
I also liked the fact that Rudd and Fey are not conventionally
attractive stars, per se, for a standard-order Hollywood romcom.
They are good-looking people, to be sure, but not in highly
glamorized ways. They come
off more like authentic people in their professions as opposed to
limitlessly alluring actors pathetically trying to inhabit these type of
seems to have an awful lot to say about the trench warfare-like battles
that ensue in the post-secondary admissions process not only between
students at admissions officers, but also between the officers themselves.
I guess it’s more than a bit disappointing that the film never
seems to satirically go for the jugular when presenting this unique world
on screen. For as solid
as Fey is as her hard-edged officer that goes soft, the film’s script is
a bit limp and spineless when it comes to confronting Portia’s most
damning indiscretions. She
commits an act near the end of the film that – not to give anything away
– seems to condemn her without any hope for forgiveness, especially when
one considers her act. Yet,
the screenplay conveniently finds a manner to wipe the slate clean in the
film’s ever-so-tidy final 15-minutes as the story concludes on an
artificially constructed feel-good high; I cry a resounding foul here.
at nearly two hours, is way, way too long and over-padded for its own good.
Strong screen comedies rely on timing, pacing, and consistent
guffaws, all of which are sacrificed, I think, when films go on beyond
90-100 minutes. When the film
is not trying to send-up the college admissions process and be a love
story of two opposites coming together, it further adds on a would-be
sentimental and heart-rending subplot involving Portia’s semi-estranged
mother (Lily Tomlin), a staunch and radical feminist that lives deep in
the woods and is one with nature. She
also is a cancer survivor that’s been through hell.
Tomlin is such a darkly acerbic dynamo here and injects the film with a
pulse during its frequent bouts with blandness.
Yet, for as razor sharp and inspired as she is here, Tomlin’s
presence and her story arc with Portia feels like its been appropriated
from a whole other film altogether.
All in all, ADMISSIONS fails to traverse between its yearning to achieve stinging satire, screwball romantic farce, and weepy eyed pathos. Weitz, who was responsible for co-directing the first AMERICAN PIE and ABOUT A BOY with his brother Chris, has a good feel for this kind of material, but nonetheless lacks a cohesive follow-through with having all of its divergent elements flow smoothly together. It’s not that ADMISSION is not a pleasurable film to sit through (I could arguably watch Fey and Rudd in just about anything…and have), but it’s perhaps too slight and clumsily handled for its own good, which sort of betrays all of the great possibilities of its novel premise. There’s a tangibly sturdy and memorable comedy here…somewhere…that’s desperately trying to surface.