As the driving creative force behind 30 Rock (and, to a certain extent, Saturday Night Live during her tenure as head writer) for its seven-season run, Tina Fey generally tried to cut against the television comedy grain, unafraid to chase after comedy that was offbeat, ambitious and downright weird, particularly for a network sitcom. Perhaps that's why Fey's feature film career has been, for the most part, so disappointing. Instead of letting her freak flag fly, she's pursued middle-of-the-road mainstream star vehicles, from the pregnancy-themed Baby Mama (which was more sitcom-y than 30 Rock), to the "zany" night-on-the-town adventure Date Night (which managed to waste the combined talents of Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, James Franco) and now Admission, which feels like an American version of those refined (re: pleasantly dull) British comedies -- think Waking Ned Devine and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- that only people over 40 go and see. It's mostly harmless, but also pretty lifeless.
Like her previous two films, Fey is just an actor-for-hire on Admission, with the writing duties being handled by Karen Croner, working from a book by Jean Hanff Korelitz. (And maybe her lack of script involvement in these star vehicles is the root of their problem; after all, Mean Girls owes roughly 80 percent of its general awesomeness to Fey's screenplay, with another 10 percent going to Rachel McAdams's bitchface and the remaining 10 percet to Lindsay Lohan's pre-Wilmer, pre-drugs, pre-insanity comic chops.) Croner's last big credit was the Meryl Streep-gets-cancer drama One True Thing and she approaches Admission with the same serious minded sense of purpose, which doesn't exactly help with, you know, the comedy of the piece. You kind of know you're in trouble when the movie commences with some earnest expository voiceover from Fey introducing us to her character -- uptight college admissions officer Portia Nathan (the name alone sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody) -- and her world, the leafy campus of New Jersey's own Princeton University. It's the height of admissions season at Princeton and when she's not carefully pouring over applications from eager prospies, Portia is going on short road trips through the Tri-State and New England areas, visiting high schools to deliver her carefully prepared sales pitch.
One of the schools she stops by is New Quest, a "progressive" (re: no grades, no homework, no being sent to the principal's office) learning institution based out of what appears to be a barn. The guy running the place -- who also seems to be the only teacher on staff -- is handsome do-gooder John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a rich kid who tried to flee his privileged upbringing by devoting his life to various charitable pursuits that have taken him all over the world, including Africa, where he acquired an adopted son, Nelson (Travaris Spears). He's also got a whopper of a secret, which is why he tracked Portia down at Princeton and asked her to visit New Quest. He's got a student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who is clearly an Albert Einstein-level genius. Trouble is, he's also got Einstein's general dislike of organized (or, in the case of New Quest's model, semi-organized) learning. A college like Princeton seems completely out of his reach unless an admissions officer (namely Portia) is willing to go to bat for him. Oh, and by the way, he tells her, there's a 90 percent chance that Jeremiah is the son you secretly had and gave up for adoption years ago, after which point you decided that children weren't going to be part of your life plan. BOOM! How's that for a recommendation?
On the surface, there's nothing glaringly wrong with Admission. Fey and Rudd are both charming and charismatic performers, which makes the inevitable love story that develops between Portia and John mostly tolerable. (Despite the fact that various late-inning plot developments retroactively transform John into an obnoxious busybody, who really should have minded his own business.) And as Portia's prodigal (potential) son, Wolff is actually quite appealing in a role that, on paper, could have been incredibly irritating. To further delight the NPR and/or AARP crowd, there are amusing supporting turns by old favorites like Wallace Shawn (as Portia's dorky boss) and Lily Tomlin (as Portia's resolutely feminist mom). Behind the camera, Paul Weitz bathes the images (and the actors) in a warm, rosy glow that immediately puts its target audience at ease. "Don't worry," he seems to be saying, "I'm not Harmony Korine and this isn't Spring Breakers. Just sit back and relax, 'cause this movie is gonna go down like a mug of warm milk."
And boy, did Admission make me incredibly sleepy. Despite the obvious talents of everyone involved, there's no comic spark, no dramatic oomph, no life to this movie. It goes about its business with consummate professionalism, but little energy. Even Fey -- one of the quickest wits around -- slows herself down to a snail's pace, a performance choice that's probably intended to amplify the drama of her character's plight, but instead makes her seem vaguely zombified. The push-pull between motherhood and careerism is a consistent theme in her comedy -- from 30 Rock to her own memoir Bossypants -- and Admission had the potential to be a provocative and funny riff on that familiar subject, putting her in the position of a career-minded professional who made the choice not to have (more) children and doesn't even begin to see the appeal of motherhood (in other words... Peggy Olson), even when her supposed son comes back into her life. But the movie too quickly undermines Portia's choice, devoting whole scenes to her clumsily following Jeremiah around like some kind of stalker. Admission also has no compunction about spiking her professional integrity, as her attempts to beef up Jeremiah's admissions application represent a clear conflict of interest. A darker more challenging take on this material -- like, say, Election -- would have made the almost pathological level of self-denial Portia starts to display part of the comedy instead of asking us to continue finding her resolutely sympathetic. But that's a road Weitz and his cast don't appear willing to go down. They're content to mosey along safer trails, making their way to a predictable conclusion that may satisfy the characters, but not the audience.
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