Although “Admission” is being sold — and sold hard — as a romantic comedy, the story is as much a drama as a comedy and it turns more serious toward the end.
You can’t blame the publicists for marketing this as a comedy. After all, it stars two of today’s top comic stars: Tina Fey, fresh off her triumphant final season of “30 Rock,” and Paul Rudd, a utility player so reliable he single-handedly almost made “This is 40” bearable.
“ Admission” begins with a set of comic conventions in place. Fey’s character, Portia Nathan, is a highly organized admissions officer at Princeton University who believes her life is perfectly balanced, but we can tell she is one crisis away from a panic attack.
Rudd’s character, John Pressman, is a laid-back do-gooder who runs a developmental high school where every classroom looks like a summer camp’s arts and crafts lodge.
John has a senior he believes deserves a place at Princeton despite a weak GPA and a brush with the law. John insists the boy, Jeremiah (Naked Brothers Band member Nat Wolff), is a genius, and pesters Portia, an acquaintance from college, to travel to his school in New Hampshire to meet this prospect.
A classic clash of opposites is established — tightly wound Fey vs. loosey-goosey Rudd. Several other standard comic elements are already in place. Portia’s current live-in boyfriend (Michael Sheen) is a ponce of an English professor whose idea of pillow talk is to recite “The Canterbury Tales” in Old English.
Also the dean of admissions will retire at the end of the year, setting up a competition for the job between Portia and her rival, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), who could have a PhD in slinging insults disguised as compliments.
The dean of admissions is played by reliable weirdo Wallace Shawn. This, along with the casting of Lily Tomlin as Fey’s mother, ought to solidify the film's claim as a comedy.
“ Admission” does start out with a fair share of laughs, probably because the material was reshaped to fit Fey’s persona, and the laughs do continue after John nails Portia with a zinger. Although she doesn’t remember him well from college, a mutual friend spilled Portia’s biggest secret, that she became pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption.
John believes Jeremiah is Portia’s child, and he has the birth certificate to back up his claim. Instead of becoming another comic complication, though, this revelation sends Portia down the path toward a midlife crisis. Feelings of motherhood she had long suppressed burst forth, and she begins coaching Jeremiah (who doesn’t know she is his mother) on the admissions process, violating her code against getting emotionally involved with prospective students.
Portia decides to blame all her problems on her mother, Susannah, an arch-feminist who wrote a bestselling book in the 1970s. Susannah raised Portia to be so independent that she carries a spare Do Not Disturb sign in case her motel room doesn’t have one.
Susannah, who has a Bella Abzug tattoo on her shoulder, hasn’t softened her views. “It’s not healthy to need other people too much,” she tells Portia after the Sheen character leaves her.
If the tone of “Admission” were heavier, I would interpret this as a rebuke of ’70s feminism. I don’t see it that way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if others do.
A hesitant romance does blossom between Portia and John, but this story is secondary to Portia’s self-discovery. John is not as noble as he first seems. He travels the globe carrying out projects in Third World countries, even adopting an orphaned boy in Africa. Yet, John refuses to put down roots, which his adoptive son (Travaris Spears) resents. John plans to move to Ecuador at the end of the term, apparently leaving his school in the lurch as he seems to be the only faculty member.
“ Admission” is directed by Paul Weitz, who proved adept at low-key seriocomic stories with “About a Boy.” This isn’t nearly as good, with the comic moments becoming forced at the midpoint, but once Weitz makes up his mind, “Admission” finds its voice as a drama in time to reach a satisfying conclusion. Although Fey doesn’t go through the same anguish Kristen Wiig did in “Bridesmaids,” her character makes mistakes and will face the consequences. The ending is as bitter as it is sweet.
The script is credited to Karen Croner and based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Korelitz worked in the Princeton admissions office, and some of the ins and outs of the job make it into the movie, giving it a polish of authenticity. Once the rejection letters have gone out, admissions officers write the most creative insults and death threats they receive on a white board.
Surrealism also creeps into the depiction of the admissions process. When the admissions board sits down to decide who will get into Princeton and who will be rejected, the hopeful students appear in the corner of the room as their files are read. The rejected disappear through a trap door. Most of them go down the chute. The similarities to a reality show — or perhaps a pitch session in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room — are disturbing.
The story is paced leisurely, which allows it to deal with messy interpersonal relationships, but it also allows us to wonder why Portia’s coworkers don’t notice she is focusing a high degree of attention on an obscure high school with only one applicant, or why Jeremiah doesn’t have a safety school.
The results are modest and thoughtful, but flawed. To be honest, the main reason I liked “Admission” is because I like Fey and I like Rudd, and I like them together. And I appreciate that this isn’t another sensitive but gross comedy from the Judd Apatow school. If Fey is intentionally steering away from that, more power to her.
Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Who's in it: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff
What's it about: A tightly wound Princeton University admissions officer (Fey) visits a rustic alternative high school run by Rudd. He introduces her to the school's top student (Wolff), who wants to attend Princeton. Rudd then drops the bombshell that the boy is the son Fey gave up for adoption 17 years earlier.
Verdict: Despite the advertising selling this as a romantic comedy, it is as much a drama as a comedy with an ending as bitter as it is sweet. The focus is not so much on the romance between Fey and Rudd, as on Fey's midlife crisis and the conflict with her feminist mother played by Lily Tomlin. Director Paul Weitz waits a long while before allowing the story to find its voice as a drama, but Fey and Rudd are likeable and they make the project work despite its flaws.