Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in "Admission."
Who doesn't want the inside track to the brutally competitive college-admission process? At its best, director Paul Weitz's uneven comedy skewers students, parents and the Ivy League alike over the fat-envelope frenzy endured by so many.
But like an applicant's personal statement gone awry, the Tina Fey vehicle veers from an amusing College Confidential to a judgmental take on single women who choose to have children. The uneasy shift in tone places "Admission" in the "maybe" stack, instead of on top of the "acceptance" pile of must-see movies.
Adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel of the same title, the narrative focuses on admissions officer Portia Nathan (Fey). Armed with her share of orange folders representing 22,150 hopeful teen applicants -- from whom the evaluators will select 1,008 for the Class of 2016 -- Portia routinely says that the secret to getting into Princeton is "just be yourself." And don't send champagne or baked goods, or call. Portia and colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben of "Lincoln") are also competing to replace the dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn) upon his impending retirement.
Fey excels at character-driven comedy, whether portraying the quirky "30 Rock" heroine Liz Lemon, whom she created, or stepping into the more sensible shoes of a woman who has spent 16 years recruiting students and reviewing heaps of paperwork. But even Fey can't overcome the awkwardness of Karen Croner's screenplay when Portia sleeps with former Dartmouth classmate John Pressman (Paul Rudd of "This Is 40"), who contends that the most gifted student (Nat Wolff) at his alternative high school might be the biological son that she secretly gave up for adoption while in college.
What becomes the big reveal at the end of Korelitz's novel changes the course of the movie at its midpoint. Portia's orderly life starts to fall apart, particularly when John pushes her to give his prodigy's application to Princeton an advantage.
There's nothing wrong with the chemistry between Fey and Rudd and everything is more than right about Lily Tomlin's show-stealing performance as Portia's no-nonsense, feminist mother. Yet the comedy feels surprisingly flat, considering Weitz's comic chops as the director of "American Pie" and the more nuanced "About a Boy." But Weitz has perfect timing when portraying Portia mulling over an application, envisioning the eager high school senior who subsequently plummets through an imaginary trapdoor near her desk when she stamps "reject" on the folder.
Thousands of our nation's best and brightest lead fulfilling lives, despite once being denied entry into the ivy-covered universities of their choice. Nor will the disappointing "Admission" define the future of its talented ensemble cast.
Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material. 1 hour, 57 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti