In Admission, Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University. Portia lives a life of seeming happiness – choosing the nation’s best young minds by day, routine nights of intellectual pursuit with her live-in boyfriend – until one by one, every element of her world starts to unravel.
First, her boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) leaves her for an ice-queen colleague (Sonya Walger), just as Portia’s career is poised to advance with the departure of her mentor (Wallace Shawn). If that wasn’t complicated enough, into Portia’s life walks John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the free-spirited dean of an eccentric new-age school. John comes hat in hand asking Portia to personally review the application of a student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a genius savant who has struggled to find his way. At first, buttoned-up Portia wants nothing to do with the kid – but as John begins to share more and more about this unique boy, Portia finds herself questioning the entire college system she’s helped perpetuate for so long.
Based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission is a pretty successful movie adaptation that manages to capture a good portion of the depth and complexity of its source material – which ultimately results in one strange bird of a film. A character study that’s not afraid to take its time developing its protagonist, narrative and thematic arcs, the movie is probably not what most viewers will expect – but may find pleasantly surprising, thanks in large part to the presence of Tina Fey in the central role.
The story was adapted for the screen by Karen Croner, who hasn’t had a screenwriting credit since One True Thing back in 1998. Admission isn’t just a title, but rather a cornerstone term for what the story is about, thematically speaking: the idea of “letting someone in” (the same double entendre found in the film’s marketing), but also “admission” in the sense of confession; confronting the reality of self.
Croner’s script fulfills its job of taking us through a multi-layered arc in a sensible and purposed way. At nearly two hours, the film can feel as long as a novel at times, but to accuse the script of being “undercooked,” or any of its developments and turns as “unearned” would be false. It’s pretty much as tight a story as there comes – with nary a loose thread or plot-point left dangling (except those meant to). Like any good novel, the ultimate destination is refreshingly NOT cliched or vanilla, providing some (gasp!) gray area for those of us in real life to better debate and/or relate to.
The film was directed by Paul Weitz, who – after such a bold and an accomplished launch with American Pie back in 1999 – has been mired in forgettable films like Little Fockers and Cirque du Freak as of late. While not at all as raunchy as Pie, Weitz does manage to infuse Admission with a similar blending of humor and heart – clearly (and wisely) relying on the considerable talents of his leading lady (Fey) to help shape the work. Visually speaking, the film is pretty standard – though there are a few clever sequences and mis-en-scene setups that stand out – most involving the examination of actual college admissions processes, which is conveyed smartly and impeccably in the film.
Tina Fey is the real story here, though; if there is still doubt that the 30 Rock and SNL comedienne could branch out beyond her niche, this film kills it dead. Fey is the driving force/beating heart/comedy ringmaster of the show, and is as good in her dramatic moments (of which this movie provides a few) as she is cracking-wise. She’s also adorable, sexy (which this film demonstrates a few times) and is simply watchable no matter what it is she’s doing – which is pretty much the sole reason that Admission’s novel-style pacing holds up at all as an entertaining film experience.
Of course, Fey is not at all alone in her efforts: Paul Rudd plays… that charming “Aw-shucks” guy he’s known and loved for. His character is well-rounded and interesting, but the film doesn’t go as deep as it could with Pressman, leaving more inferred than explored. Still, Fey and Rudd are a perfect pairing on both the comedy and chemistry front. Watching them onscreen together is like watching puppies at play; even when very little is happening, it is still charming and cute.
Rounding out the cast are a host of great character actors and/or comedians. Lily Tomlin kills as Portia’s fringe-feminist mother, Susannah. As a veritable she-wolf, Tomlin is let loose to throw around acerbic monologues and one-liners – which she does with the best of them. Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) has a small role as Portia’s mentor/boss Clarence, but still steals a scene or two; Olek Krupa (Salt) steals every scene as Polokov, the famous Russian writer/professor who Portia recruits to her cause; and even when playing what is more of a running gag than an actual role, Michael Sheen is still fantastic.
Admission is a movie to just sit and watch. Not for expectation of comedic payoff (it’s not a gut-buster), not for dramatic catharsis (it’s not that serious), but because it has an interesting, unique story to tell - with interesting, unique characters, played by charming actors you like to watch. The journey isn’t overly thrilling, but it’s not a chore, either. And, when it’s done, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve seen something whole, complete and enjoyable – if not all that memorable (i.e., great matinee viewing). If that sounds good to you, then by all means, apply.
Admission is now in theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material.