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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: Admission (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd

Admission is the kind of movie you should dislike on principle. It's a paint by numbers romantic comedy that takes no chances and, really, it's the kind of movie Hollywood needs to make less of, not more of. Yet, it is blessed by the strength of its two leads, who exude enough charm and talent that they make it seem more compelling than it has any business being. It's not enough to make it "good," exactly, but it is enough to make you like it despite its flaws. I realize that it probably sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I actually did like Admission a fair bit. It's not the best thing anyone involved has ever appeared in, but it plays well on a lazy summer evening.

Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer whose life (and career) are upended when John (Paul Rudd), a former Dartmouth classmate who now runs an alternative school, contacts her to ask that she come speak to the students at his school. Under normal circumstances she wouldn't bother, however, Princeton has just dropped from its position as the country's number one university, and Portia is pressured to help get the number of applications up, so she makes her way out to the Quest school, which is so far out of the way that her GPS basically gives up and dies on her way there. At Quest, John pushes for one student in particular, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a prodigy with a spotty academic record. What John doesn't tell Portia, at first, is that he suspects that Jeremiah might be the child that Portia gave up for adoption when she was in university. When she learns this, she takes a keen interest in getting Jeremiah into the school, but his academic record will make it a battle.

While the film is premised on an admissions officer secretly trying to get her son into her university, the film gets the most mileage out of depicting parent/child dynamics that range from mildly troubled to terrifically dysfunctional. John has an adopted son, Nelson (Travaris Spears), whom he wants to raise in as opposite a fashion as he himself was raised. John was raised in a home of stereotypical wealth and privilege ("Have another gallon of gin," he advises his mother during Nelson's birthday party) and his intention is to raise Nelson in a nomadic way, traveling from place to place doing humanitarian work, ignoring Nelson's pleas that he be allowed to stay in one place for a while. He's done the opposite of what his parents did, and yet Nelson resents him as much as he resents his own parents. Portia, meanwhile, is the only child of a single mother, a feminist writer (Lily Tomlin), whose ideas about self-reliance are so extreme that she insists that her dogs should hunt for their food rather than relying on her to feed them. Her relationship with her mother (who insists that Portia should stop calling her "mom" and start calling her "Susannah" in order to release them both from the confines of mother/daughter relationship) is so toxic that it was the primary motivation for giving her baby up for adoption, as she didn't want to risk that he would have the same type of upbringing that she did. Although Admission is a comedy, its characters wander around with deep psychological wounds.

The main problem with Admission is that it aims very firmly for the middle, aspiring for little more than competency. It exceeds competency in many respects - it captures the academic milieu sharply and its characters sometimes take on unexpected depths - but it's a ramshackle production which can never really seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be, and creates a lot of frayed edges only to tidy them up all too quickly in the final act. Portia's relationship with Susannah is seemingly repaired by one revelation; after having the rug pulled out from under her regarding Jeremiah, Portia declares that she never wants to see John again - a statement which is swiftly forgotten; Jeremiah is all too briefly plagued by self-doubt after learning the truth about Portia's motivation for helping him; etc. The film throws up a number of crises, only to smooth them over as if they're nothing, and there's a troubling undercurrent to the way that the film deals with Portia's emerging conflict between career and motherhood, which finds her eschewing everything she's worked so hard for professionally in order to embrace the idea of motherhood - an idea which she takes no practical steps to confirm.

Still, what works about Admission works very well. Fey and Rudd deliver performances much stronger than the material merits and have an easy, relaxed chemistry that makes their pairing believable even as the screenplay contrives means to keep them apart (or, at least, to delay their coupling). Meanwhile, though Tomlin is stuck with a distinctly unlikeable character, her total commitment to Susannah's unpleasantness almost makes the character work, and though the subplot gets short shrift, the recurring gag of Portia running into her ex-boyfriend (Michael Sheen) and his new (and pregnant) girlfriend gets a few laughs while also helping to demarcate the passage of time. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend Admission as the first choice on any given night, it's good enough that you won't be left feeling like you've wasted your time in watching it.

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