By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette — There’s a trap for comedy performers who want to transition to being a little less funny, perhaps even doing something more dramatic. The audience waits in anticipation of that first big laugh. It expects their clowns to be what they’ve always been, funny.
Tina Fey, a satirist and comedienne of the highest order, faces this problem head-on in “Admission,” a film that, like its star, wants to be taken seriously. Yes, there are laughs in the movie, most of them courtesy of a scenery-chewing performance by Lily Tomlin, but by-and-large this is a thought-provoker with some important things it wants to say about feminism, college admission hurdles, adoption, and women in the workplace. The film is directed by Paul Weitz (“About A Boy,” “Being Flynn”) and written by Karen Croner from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel.
“Admission” follows Fey, who plays Portia Nathan, a long-standing college admissions officer at Princeton. She is one of a university team that will decide which high school students, out of 20,000 applicants, will be selected for the coveted chance to be part of Princeton’s class of 2016. At most, only 1,500 will be admitted. This specific vetting process is important because whichever admissions officer brings something special to the table, as in a promising student of astonishing potential, will probably be the person chosen to replace the retiring Dean of Admissions (nicely played by Wallace Shawn). Portia’s most serious competition is from an equally-determined fellow officer named Corinne (acted by a marginally interesting Gloria Reuben). The extremely organized and hugely professional Portia, who is in a long-term relationship with the chairman of the English Department (an underused Michael Sheen), decides to take Princeton’s attributes on the road, eventually arriving at an alternative high school in the countryside. It’s called New Quest and the students learn about iron work and birthing animals.
One of the teachers is John Pressman, who was a classmate of Portia’s when they went to college. John’s a granola type with a silver spoon pedigree; free-spirited, independent, and rich. He’s adopted a wise-cracking Ugandan child, who actually seems more American than some of the movie’s other characters. John thinks one of his older students would be a perfect candidate for Princeton. The problem is that the teenager, Jeremiah, is a genius who has the worst grades possible for being admitted to an Ivy League school. Paul Rudd plays John with his usual good-natured charm intact. A bit of a problem here is that Rudd acts these parts so well and so often that he’s starting to become predictable. Nat Wolff is Jeremiah, and he brings a refreshing un-Hollywood demeanor to his role.
All of this takes “Admission” where it wants to go, even if the ride is bumpy, but not great bumpy as in a classic like “All About Eve.” Perhaps if Fey had written the ragged screenplay, the film would have been fully engaging. As it is, only the second half really soars.
Part of the problem is that director Weitz doesn’t seem to know how to handle the movie’s myriad revelations. There are a number of surprises in store for Portia, perhaps too many. I don’t want to reveal what happens at the core of the movie, but there are serious issues at play, including, but not limited to, birthrights, emotions between mothers and daughters, spousal cheating, and legacy admissions to colleges. Not even the talented Fey can withstand the jolts her character has to face. At times, she seems uncertain, tentative, as if Weitz failed with his direction. He definitely falters with his handling of a silly centerpiece at Portia and John’s introduction during which a calf is born. If you see the film, you’ll understand how dreary the symbolism is.
Through it all, Tomlin is wonderful as Portia’s mother, Susannah, the author of a groundbreaking book called “The Masculine Myth,” which was written during the blossoming of the feminist-era. She has kept secret from Portia the identity of her father, who may have been a stranger on a train. The straight-forward Susannah loves giving unusual advice, which is one of the reasons her daughter can only tolerate her in small doses. Tomlin is a whirlwind and a great benefit to the movie.
“Admission” takes delight in tweaking the games parents and students have to play in order to get into a prestigious college. The movie wobbles as Fey maneuvers the mine field that throws Portia into a tailspin. It’d be interesting to know if Fey wanted more comedy or more drama. As an actress, she seems unhappy, as if she didn’t believe in a possible romance between her and Rudd. And if she doesn’t believe in it, why should the audience?Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day.