RATING: Three stars
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 serious toward the end.
You can’t blame the publicists for marketing “Admission” as a comedy. It features 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 is played by reliable weirdo Wallace Shawn. This, along with the casting of Lily Tomlin as Fey’s mother, ought to solidify “Admission’s” status 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 drops a bombshell on Portia. Although she doesn’t remember John 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 tumbling into 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 manifesto 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 opinions.
“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.