Deftly playing Tina Fey‘s feminist-icon mother, Lily Tomlin all but steals Admission, a knowing but uneven comedy about the neuroticism of the college-admission process on both sides of the equation. The foibles of supposedly intelligent adult characters cause humor to erupt at odd moments throughout this quasi-farcical look at high-end academia, but director Paul Weitz betrays an erratic grip on the comic tone, and the misguided central characters emerge, in the end, as less likable than they ought to be. By its nature already limited in appeal to mostly upscale middle-aged audiences, this Focus release will be challenged to push beyond modest returns in specialized release.
Karen Croner‘s adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz‘s novel springboards off the panic and mania that seize students and parents alike when it comes to competing for prized slots at American institutions of higher learning. However, the focus here is not on parents and some of the kids competing with 20,000 others to get into Princeton’s class of 2016 but rather on one of the admissions officers, Portia Nathan (Fey), who will help decide their fates. At the same time, she’s vying with another colleague, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), to replace the retiring dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn).
Weighed down with reams of applications but primly organized and efficient, Portia has been doing this for years and has her rap down pat about how there is “no secret formula” for getting in, you just have to “be yourself” and so forth. However, Portia is a tightly wound woman who’s about to completely unravel. On a tour of high schools, she swings by ultra-alternative New Quest to visit teacher and former college classmate John (Paul Rudd), who’s got an exceptional student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), he hopes she can champion at Princeton. The adopted kid of working-class parents, he’s an autodidact with bad grades but perfect test scores.
Unfortunately, two consecutive scenes that vitally change the course of Portia’s life and that of the film are highly contrived and awkwardly managed. Mixed signals between Portia and John result in a botched sexual encounter trumped by John informing Portia that he’s discovered she’s Jeremiah’s biological mother. Then, when Portia rushes home to help her English department chairman hubby (Michael Sheen) host a reception, he chooses this public moment to mention that he’s leaving her for another woman, who is both present and already pregnant.
Tailspinning Portia has enough trouble maintaining her composed professionalism without all the continued badgering from John, who, in a less-than-hilarious slapstick interlude back at his overweeningly sustainable utopia, forces her to help birth a calf. Endlessly wallowing in his globe-trotting do-gooding and political correctness, John is annoying enough so as to require all of Rudd’s natural charm to make the character even partially palatable as a romantic lead.
Ultimately, John’s imploring, as well as some long-dormant motherly instincts, push Portia into ethically challenged territory as she champions Jeremiah’s acceptance at Princeton, a process that ultimately puts several characters through the wringer with presumed life lessons learned all around.
Apt ironies and well-aimed satiric japes co-exist with excessive artifice and clumsy execution in a tale populated by characters in possession of far more education than common sense. The life role Portia has constructed for herself over many years is fragile enough to crumble virtually overnight, John never has escaped his own indulged upbringing, Portia’s husband is a moral weasel, and academia is littered with backbiting hypocrites.
Although her character is as deeply flawed as the others, the one performer who truly rises above the fray here is Tomlin. Her Susannah, the author of a landmark tract called The Masculine Myth, is a hilariously blunt-talking professional feminist who sports a Bella Abzug tattoo and has never revealed to Portia the identity of her father (allegedly a hot one-night stand on a train), and whom her daughter can tolerate in only the most limited doses. A dispenser of bizarre advice and adorned with newly acquired fake boobs she doesn’t quite know how to wear, Susannah is a hedonistic narcissist Tomlin has great fun elaborating.
For her part, Fey seems a bit tense and tentative in a role that never comes entirely into focus. Traumas such as Portia being dumped by her husband, as well as her sexual relations with John, are played for arch comedy, and, in spite of the omnipresence of adopted kids, pregnancy and students, we never know how she really feels about having given up her own child as a teenager or the prospect of having any more. Rudd basically wrestles John’s obnoxiousness to a draw, while Olek Krupa is appealing as a manly Russian professor who’s just Susannah’s type.
Given the film’s often critical attitude toward elite universities and some jokes at the school’s expense, it’s mildly surprising that Princeton cooperated and allowed the production on campus. Much of the same crew that worked on Weitz’s previous film, Being Flynn — including cinematographer Declan Quinn, production designer Sarah Knowles, costume designer Aude Bronson-Howard and editor Joan Sobel — have helped turn out a nice-looking film on no-doubt modest means.