Worth the Admission?

(USA, 117 min.)
Dir. Paul Weitz, Writ Karen Croner
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, and Lily Tomlin.
Tina Fey stars in Admission, an eOne Films release.
Photo: David Lee / eOne Films.
Princeton is not for everyone. I might sound like an underachiever for saying that, but the hoity-toityness of the Ivy League doesn’t cater to all kinds of learners. Poncey Princeton breeds a certain kind of humour, like clowns of the sycophantic, pompous Jack Donaghy variety. Some pupils are more Bush League material. The Liz Lemon types, perhaps: awkward, clumsy, “special.” How appropriate, then, that Liz Lemon herself makes a farce of Princeton pretension in the amicable Bush League comedy Admission.

Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University who enjoys/dreads the yearly gauntlet of the university admissions process. Childless, friendless, and married to her job, Portia is Liz Lemon with a better suit and slightly more word vomit. If Portia gets an A at work, she gets a failing grade in her love life. (Liz Lemon strikes again.) Her long-term boyfriend (a funny Michael Sheen) treats her like a dog with a condescending pat on the head, rather than a kiss goodnight.

Portia gets a new learning experience when she goes to explore a new age school called New Quest, which is run in the backwoods of American by John Pressman (a bland Paul Rudd). At New Quest, Portia encounters a horde of children who don’t buy in to her canned speech. They think that they can be anything they want to be if they set their minds to eat. “Welcome to the real world, kids,” Portia advises the students. Smarts, passion, and ambition mean nothing today without a corresponding piece of paper.

Portia learns that she’s wrong in her stuffy Princeton ways, however, when John introduces her to a star student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff, Writers), who dreams of the Ivy League. Jeremiah has have the kind of academic history that would normally lead Portia to make a quick check in the box labelled “Deny,” but she sees in him a unique character, like a mangy Rescue Cat worth saving. Jeremiah might also be Portia’s son, as John explains to her after giving her a tour of the school. Put in the position of all those parents who’ve wanted to wrangle the best opportunity possible for their offspring, Portia looks at the admission process anew.

The admission process for Jeremiah’s future builds with the kind of unnecessary filler and predictability that makes for a shaky acceptance. The script doesn’t deliver nearly as well as a comedy should when it clocks in at two hours. Penned by Karen Croner, whose last credit provided one of Meryl Streep’s best roles with One True Thing, Admission is sporadically hilarious, but also bloated, clichéd, and familiar. A sure-fire entry into the Ivy League of cinema demands something new: a freshness we haven’t seen before and a style of wit one can’t find anywhere else. Most of the film’s best laughs are in the trailer, too, so it doesn’t leave much to merit admission, but, like a good résumé, the stuff we see early is still worth the lengthier look.

However, there is the variable character of the applicant and, as Portia tells all her prospective recruits, “Just be yourself.” Admission manages a passing grade thanks to Tina Fey’s charming aptitude for awkward humour situational shtick. Admission wins some more bonus points thanks to a fun supporting turn by Lily Tomlin as Portia’s flamboyant feminist mother, Susannah.

The relationship between Portia and her mother adds a bizarre dynamic that runs current with Portia’s own struggle with her potential motherhood and her power over Jeremiah’s future. Susannah is a freethinking, free-spirited flower child while Portia is a strong, if stuffy, modern woman who is happy with a corporate career. Neither woman needs a child to define her success, but Jeremiah’s appearance on the scene leaves Portia wondering if she’s led herself astray. Is achievement defined by the length of one’s family tree or by the strength of one’s contribution to society?

Admission finally gets around to answering the question after its lengthy debate. It settles on an odd choice that celebrates the oddballs, the misfits, and the Bush Leaguers while also saying that a Princeton degree and baby bump will lead to a greater definition of success. It’s the kind of answer that leaves people satisfied, but it doesn’t necessarily make anyone happy. Put another way, it’s the kind of admission statement that’s so safe it won’t result in an outright rejection, but will only get as far as the “maybe” pile.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Admission is currently playing in wide release.