Amiable stars put 'Admission' on the wait list
05:00 AM, Mar 21, 2013
The cutthroat and often baffling process of getting into the elite school of one’s choice should lend itself to comedic exploitation of the highest grade.
Unfortunately, Admission (* *1/2 out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) settles for being a genial, predictable and ultimately forgettable romantic comedy.
Tina Fey’s character is a puzzle. She play Portia Nathan, a driven and humorless admissions officer at Princeton. Yet, fairly often she pops off with comic zingers worthy of Liz Lemon, her sassy 30 Rock character. It’s tough to get a firm sense of who she really is: a hard-nosed Ivy League gatekeeper? An emotionally-buffeted lost soul? A sardonic observer?
While it’s certainly possible to encompass all those facets, her character seems to switch jarringly among personas. Consequently, the comic tone of the film seems jumbled. The serious issues it raises the state of university education and the complexity of parent-child relationships feel like props inserted into humorous settings.
Portia lives with Mark (Michael Sheen), a smarmy English professor who reads Chaucer aloud and treats her more like a loyal Labrador than a woman he desires. When that relationship falls apart, Portia is a basket case. She turns to her mother (Lily Tomlin), a free-spirited writer who’s an odd amalgam of trigger-happy feminist and New Age philosophizer, but finds little solace.
Things grow more complicated when Portia encounters former Dartmouth classmate John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the easygoing founder of New Quest, an alternative high school. While Rudd is thoroughly likable, he and Fey lack the requisite chemistry to make audiences care about whether they become a couple.
John is angling for Portia to accept Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a super-smart but unconventional New Quest student. A subplot involving Jeremiah’s connection to Portia is an intriguing detour.
John and Portia would seem to be polar opposites, which is why we know they must attract. She’s been in the same job for 16 year and doesn’t want children. He’s traveled the world and in the process adopted Nelson (Travaris Spears), a Ugandan orphan.
Portia is a cool customer, strict and uncompromising. Yet after meeting John her composure is upended. Inappropriate kisses, uncontrollable tears, calf birthing and public vomiting ensue. Professional ethics fly out the window. The comedy grows more forced as she grows looser, though there is a clever scene in which Portia and her fellow officers discuss the files of diverse candidates. The students make a fantasy appearance, then drop unceremoniously through a trapdoor in the floor.
It’s as if director Paul Weitz couldn’t decide whether he was making a broad comedy or a wry satire. Weitz has had a nimble touch with comedies such as the undervalued American Dreamz and a superb adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. This tale, based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book, might not have been the best match of material and director.
For a more compelling take on a similar subject, check out a little-seen gem from last year called Liberal Arts.
Largely because of its engaging cast, Admission is an amiable, but only slightly-above-average, comic romp.