Portia Nathan thinks she has it all worked out. A good job she’s had since college (as an admissions officer at Princeton, the #1 college in America), a decent, stable relationship with a good if unexciting man (the chair of the English Literature department) she’s been in for ten years, a cute house, a bonsai tree she tends to meticulously. Her schedule revolves around poetry nights and faculty lunch daytimes. To anyone looking from the outside, obviously, she is in a safety net rut, but is too busy (or afraid?) to notice OR admit it to herself. And then, in one fell swoop the safety net is taken from under her and Admission the movie starts.
The title refers to both the admissions process to college, that jumping-through-hoops dance parents and children go through as a right of passage and Portia’s job, but also to the other definition of the word: “confession of an error/acknowledgment,” which Portia is about to experience on every level. Which brings me to a very important point about the movie: despite the trailers you’ve seen, and the pedigree of the people involved in it, it is not really a comedy, which is something it is relatively afraid to admit to itself and its potential audience.
Directed by Paul Weitz (the man behind About a Boy, In Good Company, American Pie) Admission, as I am sure you all know, stars Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, with Paul Rudd as John Pressman, the principal of an alternative high school dead set on shaking up Portia’s universe for the better. Those three together-this is bound to be an adorable, rollicking piece of cinema, right? Well, wrong.
This would not necessarily be a bad thing if “Admission” decided WHAT it was it wanted to be instead: a biting satire of the middle class circus that is the college acceptance universe, a telling analysis of parents/kids and all the ways mistakes are made in that delicate relationship balance, the 40-is-the-new-30 existential crisis (aka the building blocks of the Paul Rudd movie cottage industry of late), or an honest note on the state of feminism in 2013. Instead, it tries to be all of those things to all people, like a meandering college admissions essay that is not quite sure what its target audience is, and as such it never quite lives up to its or its cast’s potential.
Fey, as you can imagine, is the right balance of clear eyed and panicky (but not frustratingly so), a smart woman playing a smart woman, doing her best to maintain grace under pressure. Rudd, as you can imagine, is the right balance of cute and clever (but not intimidatingly so), a nice guy playing a nice guy, doing his best to alleviate the pressure everyone around him is feeling. The rest of the cast is also top notch, even if they’re all there playing merely sketches of certain academic universe types (Michael Sheen as the aforementioned English Lit department head, Wallace Shawn as the Dean of Admissions hell bent on Princeton forever being #1, Lily Tomlin as Portia’s feminist author Mother, and so on). It is just that the movie, while enjoyable and witty enough, never really quite comes into its own.
Portia’s running answer to the question: “What’s the secret to getting in?” is “Just be yourself,” and it is sad to admit that a movie with this high of chances of success (of audience acceptance) never quite follows its own mantra. Despite all the Fey/Rudd love in our hearts (and trust us, there is A LOT OF that love there), it would be ok to waitlist it till DVD season.