You know how you sometimes cut a movie way more slack than it deserves, just because there’s something about it that gets to you? That was my experience with Admission, Paul Weitz’s comedy-drama about a Princeton admissions officer (Tina Fey) whose tidy life goes into freefall when she meets a young man she suspects may be her biological son. Admission is all over the place narratively and tonally; its blend of rom-com slapstick and heartfelt drama never quite gels, and its multiple plotlines (there are at least four of them) don’t so much tie up as just … trail off. But I found myself curiously willing to overlook Admission’s weaknesses, or even to reinterpret them as strengths—couldn’t those inconclusive endings be seen as a refreshingly un-rom-com-like embrace of life’s open-endedness and complexity?
In putting my thumb on the scale for Admission in this way, I may just be operating under the influence of the film’s heroine, Portia Nathan, whose problem is precisely her inability to stop cutting a worthy but flawed candidate too much slack. Portia’s motives may be nobler than mine—it’s not every day that the baby you gave up for adoption resurfaces in your life as a brilliant but materially disadvantaged autodidact whom you are uniquely positioned to help. But in my defense, romantic comedies that truck in real human emotion—that make you, however intermittently, squirm and cringe and laugh and cry—don’t grow on trees either.
Admission, adapted by Karen Croner from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz (who herself briefly worked in the Princeton admissions office as an application reader), doesn’t aim to satirize the institutional elitism of the Ivy League admissions process but to illuminate its workings from the inside. It may gently mock the excesses of the dog-eat-dog selection system at top-tier universities—the pushy parents, the cloyingly earnest personal essays, the ever-more-arcane lists of extracurricular interests—but it also ultimately affirms that system’s value (and, by extension, the value of an undergraduate liberal-arts education). This would be a good movie for a parent to watch with a high-school-age child facing down the college admissions slog—it’s mildly snarky but resolutely uncynical.
As the movie begins, Fey’s Portia Nathan is secure—all but smugly so—in both her professional and personal life. For 16 years, she’s devoted her life to her job as a member of Princeton’s elite admissions team. Her boss, the dean of admissions (the always delightful Wallace Shawn), is on the verge of retirement, putting Portia and her admissions-committee frenemy (Gloria Reuben) in competition to take over his spot. For 10 years Portia has been living with her English-prof boyfriend (an enjoyably insufferable Michael Sheen), who occasionally looks up from his Chaucer just long enough to give her the kind of friendly head pat you might mete out to a distant acquaintance’s aged corgi.
Any consumer of romantic comedies will recognize that this is a protagonist whose life is about to fall spectacularly apart. Within what seems to be a space of days, Portia’s public and private worlds both begin to crumble. First, she discovers that her boyfriend is about to leave her for a woman we know only as “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar,” who’s pregnant with his twins. (A recurring joke about Portia bumping into her ex and his ever-larger new love at increasingly awkward moments is that rare running gag that gets funnier each time.) Then, a routine recruiting visit to a crunchy progressive high school in rural New Hampshire brings up a painful memory from Portia’s past. John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a teacher at the school, confesses his real reason for requesting the visit: He has reason to suspect that his brightest student, the brilliant but socially awkward Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is Portia’s biological son.
As she proved over seven seasons on 30 Rock, Tina Fey has no peer when it comes to coming unglued in slow motion, which is what makes this movie’s middle section—after Portia’s life has (predictably) fallen apart but before it gets (unconvincingly) stitched back together—by far its best. Portia Nathan is a more familiar comic type than Liz Lemon: the uptight overachiever who learns to slow down and experience real love. But Fey finds something deeper and darker in the character—especially in the surprisingly raw scenes with a superb Lily Tomlin as Portia’s mother, Susannah, a radical feminist whose hands-off parenting style is so brusque it borders on neglect. Watching these two smart, acerbic comediennes bounce dialogue off one another like quarters off a well-made bed, I found myself thinking, Why hasn’t Lily Tomlin played Tina Fey’s mother already?
I would happily have watched a whole separate movie about Portia and Susannah’s relationship, but their scenes together are limited, thanks to the script’s need to wedge in those multiple interlocking subplots. One storyline in particular, about the fraught relationship between Paul Rudd’s character, a globe-hopping do-gooder, and his travel-weary adopted son (Travaris Spears), took up at once too much and too little screen time; it felt like an import from the source novel that needed to be either eliminated or beefed up considerably. The screenplay also seriously strains credibility in the second hour, when the usually goody-two-shoes Portia, overwhelmed by both her maternal feelings for Jeremiah and her growing attraction to his teacher, agrees to throw her weight behind Jeremiah’s application to Princeton—even to the point of cutting ethical corners at her job to land him a spot in the incoming class.
Ultimately, even Fey’s extra-credit performance can’t save Admission from its thematic mushiness. Weitz—a sensitive director of actors who, with his brother Chris, co-directed the fine Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy—never makes up his mind whether he wants to make us cry at a mother’s longing for her lost child, laugh at Fey and Rudd’s nerdy flirtation banter (“You have a nice nose … in your face”), or go “ew!” at the sight of three people slipping in freshly delivered cow placenta (a curiously tame gross-out scene that never even cuts to the effluvium in question—not that I need to see a close-up of a cow placenta, but if you’re going to get prissy about it, why put the bovine-birth gag in at all?). But I challenge anyone who’s ever been a mom or had a mom not to well up at the scene in which, at the admissions committee’s final voting meeting, Portia makes an increasingly impassioned and, finally, unhinged case for the specialness of the boy she’s come to think of as her son. We could all use someone that crazy in our corner.