Critic’s Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA
Directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Travaris Spears, Michael Sheen, Gloria Ruben and Sonya Walger. Opens Fri., March 22 at area theater.
The best thing about last year’s Silver Linings Playbook was the way it managed to be both funny and dramatic without losing the viewer. My nervous system reacted as if I was watching a hardcore drama (my wife clutched my hand throughout, as if the characters were in mortal danger the whole time), yet I still found myself laughing hysterically every few minutes. That is a rare feat, and Playbook transcended most other recent attempts at the “dramedy,” making something that’s damn near impossible look effortless in the process.
I kept thinking about Playbook all through Admission, a movie that wants to be dramatic and hilarious, but ends up undercutting both while succeeding at neither. Admission’s screenplay is deeply flawed, and director Paul Weitz (American Pie) never really figures out what kind of movie he’s making. The final result is a tonal mess.
Tina Fey (30 Rock, Blind Date, Sarah Palin’s nightmares) stars as Portia Nathan, a long-time member of the Princeton admissions staff. Each year, Princeton whittles down tens of thousands of applicants to the 1000 or so fresh young minds that then attend the university. Portia’s set-to-retire boss (Wallace Shawn) is pushing the staff hard to reclaim their number one ranking in applications (as the film begins, Princeton has fallen to the second spot), and she’s competing hard with co-worker Corinne (ER’s Gloria Ruben) for the retiring man’s job.
While prepping to go drum up applications on her annual visits to high schools, Portia gets a call from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who runs an alternative school not far from where Portia grew up. The school is the type of place where structure is frowned upon and the kids learn by milking cows and setting up sustainable farms (i.e., it exists only in the movies). Pressman wants Portia to consider his best student, a kid named Jeremiah Balakian, for admission to Princeton. He also thinks she’s cute and awkwardly tries to kiss her.
Balakian is smart, well read and seems to be Princeton material. (For starters, he gets that Portia’s name is a reference to Shakespeare and not the famous car.) He’s also got a horrible record in school, which may be partially due to the fact that he’s always been a little lost thanks to his mother giving him up for adoption at birth. Long story short: Pressman and Portia are former classmates, and he did some digging and knows that the Princeton admissions officer is also the long lost mother of his best student.
That news, plus the fact that her long-term boyfriend (Michael Sheen) just dumped her, sends Portia into a tailspin. Before long, she’s breaking all the rules of her profession to get the kid into Princeton, in an effort to make amends for giving up her baby all those years before.
The plot to Admission is convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. In addition to what I’ve described, there’s also substantial subplots involving Rudd’s adopted son Nelson (Travaris Spears), and Portia’s over-the-top Feminist mother (Lily Tomlin). It all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. But Admission keeps plugging away from scene to scene — some obviously meant as straight comedy (the recurring bit involving Portia running into her ex always at the wrong moment), others meant to tug at the heartstrings. It never made me feel anything more than annoyed, especially when the movie pulls the rug out from under the plot in the last 15 minutes, leading to a mangled conclusion.
The actors seem perplexed as to what kind of movie they’re in, with Fey falling back on a muted version of her usual personae and Rudd underplaying everything. (Gloria Ruben seems to think she’s in a drama, Michael Sheen a comedy, and so on.) I don’t fault them for their performances as much as I fault them for choosing to be in this dreck in the first place. Admission is a movie that sounds like a stinker from the high-concept pitch alone. Don’t these people have agents?