Audiences have been shunning Tina Fey’s new vehicle, and it’s not hard to guess why. Admission is not the cookie-cutter romantic comedy its marketing suggests. (Fey plays an uptight overachiever! Paul Rudd plays a mellow fellow! Watch him loosen her up with hijinks involving a pregnant cow!) More dramedy than comedy, the movie is too subtle and downbeat to be a crowd pleaser, and its main character is an unapologetic smarty-pants.
Yet Admission isn’t smart enough to join the ranks of superior romantic comedies that people remember because they actually cared whether the characters got a happy ending. Its director, Paul Weitz, once made such a movie — 2002’s About a Boy, a compelling character study (courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby) of a happily single thirtysomething who starts rethinking his choices when a kid wanders into his life.
Admission has virtually the same blueprint. Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton with a ruthlessly organized work life and a tidy relationship with a professor (Michael Sheen) who, like her, doesn’t want children. Angling for a promotion, Portia visits an alternative high school where a freewheeling teacher (Rudd) introduces her to a student (Nat Wolff) he thinks is perfect for Princeton. We soon learn the teacher has an ulterior motive: He believes the boy is the son Portia gave up for adoption 17 years ago.
Is Rudd’s guerrilla mission to reunite mother and son sweet, or just intrusive and creepy? Either way, it seems insultingly obvious where Admission will go from here. Faced with her grown offspring and the demise of her passionless relationship, Portia will discover her maternal instinct and fall in love with Rudd in the process.
That’s pretty much what transpires, though Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner manage to make it less eye-roll inducing than the summary suggests. Far from a stereotypical unfeeling professional, Portia genuinely cares about the kids whose applications she shepherds through the draconian admissions process. Convinced one of those kids is hers, she directs all her efforts toward one goal: getting him into Princeton.
It’s a silly goal, something the movie never acknowledges. (Take this from an Ivy grad: There are other schools out there.) Furthermore, Portia’s scenes with her mom (Lily Tomlin), an old-school feminist who preaches against commitment, tell us our heroine’s problems go too deep to be solved by her frenetic efforts to give her kid a prestigious BA. But those problems never quite burst to the surface. Nor do Rudd’s issues with his own patrician mother (Lisa Emery), which could have made his character darker and more interesting.
As a result, Admission feels timid and tepid, with both Rudd and Fey going through quirk-comedy beats they could handle in their sleep. It’s Tomlin who snatches laughs with her feminist doyenne, who’s horrendously doctrinaire yet perversely likable. She has the passion and outrageousness the movie needs more of; a film all about her and Emery’s Lucille Bluth-esque matriarch might have been hilarious.
As it is, Admission is … well intentioned. The filmmakers make a sincere effort to go beyond the Hollywood meet-cute and confront the problems with commitment that Generation X inherited from the restless parents of the 1960s and ’70s. Weitz has material for a heavy drama or a searing black comedy, but he never drives his characters’ conflicts to the point of an ugly — or funny — explosion. They’re very nice people, but we all know “nice” isn’t enough to get you into Princeton.