A film review by Craig J. Koban April 3, 2013

ADMISSION jj
½  

2013, PG-13, 117 mins.

Portia Nathan: Tina Fey / John Pressman: Paul Rudd / Jeremiah: Nat Wolff/ Susannah: Lily Tomlin / 
Clarence: Wallace Shawn

Focus Features presents a film directed by Paul Weitz / Written by Karen Croner, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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 inconsistent. 

This film 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.  

The 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. 

 

 

Portia’s 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. 

Watching 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 head).  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 characters.    

ADMISSION 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. 

ADMISSION, 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.

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