Every year, thousands of hopeful high-school seniors send in applications to their respective colleges of choice. Some of those high-school seniors aim high, applying to Ivy League universities, less, of course, for their love of knowledge than the economic opportunities that an Ivy League education graduates.
There’s a critique to be made of the super-selective process that admits roughly 1 in 20 applicants based on standardized tests, GPAs, extracurricular activities, and make-or-break personal essays, but Admission, a romantic comedy-drama directed by Paul Weitz (Being Flynn, Little Fockers, About a Boy), isn’t that film. It’s far from it, actually, offering a thin, underdeveloped satire of the admissions process at elite (and elitist) universities. More (or less, depending on your perspective) importantly, it also fails as a romantic comedy-drama.
Admission centers on Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a thirty-something admissions officer at Princeton University. Defined by a risk-adverse nature, not to mention inertia, Portia has spent most of her adult life at Princeton, gradually working her way up to a senior position. With the head of the department, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), on the verge of retirement, Portia only has to beat out only one competitor, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), to gain the promotion. Her home life is just as settled. In a long-term relationship with an English professor, Mark (Michael Sheen), Portia seems genuinely content, if slightly bored with the life choices she’s made.
It’s Mark, as stereotypically egocentric and self-serving as any academic put on film in recent memory, who forces Portia out of her comfortable existence when he decides to leave her for another professor, Helen (Sonya Walger). More change arrives in the form of John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a barely remembered college acquaintance, world traveler, and the head of an experimental Vermont-based secondary school. With minimal prompting, Pressman convinces Portia to visit the school, ostensibly to convince her of his school’s unique student-enriching, learning environment, but also to introduce Portia to one student in particular, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a brilliant senior with stellar test scores, but poor high-school grades, making him, at best, a problematic candidate for admission to Princeton.
Portia also gets to spend some family time with her mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), an old-school radical feminist of the man-hating kind – another cliché in a film filled with clichés – and meets John’s adopted son, Nelson (Travaris Spears). While Portia and John pursue an awkward romance that turns on the usual assortment of misunderstandings and miscommunication, Portia plunges back into the semi-friendly rivalry with Corinne. Admission is at its cleverest when Portia and the admissions team review individual candidates. As she and they read the applicants, they appear in corporeal form to argue their cases, failing more often than not. Unfortunately, that’s as far as Weitz takes Admission into anything approaching novelty or originality, instead relying on Karen Croner’s (One True Thing) adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel.
What little humor occurs in Admission is less due to Croner’s screenplay or Weitz’s handling of the material than Fey and Rudd’s comic timing and, when needed, their chemistry together. Fey and Rudd often elevate mundane dialogue or rote, predictable situations watchable, but all of their strenuous efforts aren’t enough to elevate Admission above semi-inoffensive mediocrity. When Weitz isn’t letting one set-up after another slip by without a punchline (or a hint of a punchline), Admission bogs down in a series of increasingly implausible plot turns that function primarily to advance Admission’s central, family-related theme (it’s always about family), the resolution of Portia and John’s romance, the creation of a new, if conventional, family unit, and Jeremiah’s admission to Princeton, a not-quite lifelong dream (more like a one- or two-year dream).
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