What if Tina Fey and Paul Rudd finally starred in a movie together – as romantic foils, no less — and it somehow managed to be just barely charming or funny or sweet or real? Too bad, that movie now exists and it’s Paul Weitz’s Admission. Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel of the same name, Admission features Fey as Portia Nathan, a go-getter of the highest order, a Princeton admissions officer who relishes her work (which she is, it must be noted, quite good at), while ignoring a number of hiccups in her personal life. When Portia finds out she’s up for a promotion (against her co-worker Corinne, amusingly and sharply played by Gloria Reuben), it makes the news that her dirtbag boyfriend (Michael Sheen, at his caddish best) has left her for a pregnant Virginia Woolf scholar go down just a bit more smoothly.
But how can Portia make her work really stand out in the eyes of her boss (played, of course, by Wallace Shawn)? What can Portia offer that Corinne can’t? Well, Paul Rudd. Sort of. A former college acquaintance of Portia, Rudd’s John Pressman has recently started his own offbeat alternative school and he’s got one hell of a candidate for Princeton. Nat Wolff’s Jeremiah is a charmer with a wealth of unique talents, a hunger for learning, and an adorable sprit. Oh, and Portia? He might be that kid that you gave up back in college. That you haven’t thought about for years. That you’ve never once mentioned wanting to see. And John knows it.
Admission gamely tackles a wide number of issues that the modern woman (here, just Portia) faces in her adult life. Portia is already struggling with balancing her career and her personal life by the time John throws her for a major loop (one that he amps up still further by putting the moves on her), and the reveal that the lovely Jeremiah just might be her kid stirs up all sorts of questions about family, parenting, personal choices, and her true life path, all questions that Portia has clearly forced herself not to think about for sometime. As if to drive home its feminist underpinnings, Lily Tomlin pops up as Portia’s mother, a thoroughly modern woman (to a fault) who doesn’t understand why her only child wants to call her “mom,” doesn’t share the news that she has cancer, and who threatens men (well, fine, just John) with a shotgun for even coming near her property and her daughter. Portia could become Tomlin’s Susannah if she’s not careful, and that’s not what she wants at all. But what does Portia really want? And how far will she go to get it? (Spoiler: really far. Too far. Uncharacteristically far.)
Despite its often heavy tones, the film employs a bit of whimsy to move its plot along – Portia’s brain frequently cooks up fantasy sequences that involve the actual applicants presenting themselves as she reads their applications in her office – though Admission would benefit from much more of that sort of fizzy fun to keep things feeling light and peppy. Weitz, normally adept at mixing the humor with the heartache (hello, About a Boy), stumbles here, and Admission is never thoroughly funny or genuinely moving, it just gently rubs up against both sides of the same coin.
However, Fey and Rudd are undeniably charming together, and Wolff and Tavaris Spears (as John’s son Nelson) both turn in excellent performances free of the normal trappings of a lot of kid and teen screenwork (namely, that they can grate and feel disingenuous). The cast of Admission is uniformly wonderful, but it’s a shame the rest of the production can’t quite coalesce in the same manner. Consider it this way: Admission has the grades, it just doesn’t have the right extracurricular activities.
The Upside: Fey! And Rudd! Together! At last! With bonus very adorable Nat Wolff!
The Downside: Admission tries to trade on charm, but it’s ultimately messy, tonally confused, with a questionable moral center.
On the Side: Fans of the book will likely balk at the film’s conclusion which wraps up a major plot point in a very different way.