Sunday, March 24, 2013


In the featherweight comic drama Admission, Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University.  A steadfast, intelligent, independent and motherless woman who is a part of the team of officials you decide the fates of young men and women in hopes of entering higher education at one of the most illustrious campuses this country has to offer.  Portia, a stickler for details and perhaps a tad anal retentive, is still in the very traditional sense a Tina Fey role, what with her warmly infused sense of irony, awkward stumbling of well versed words and hidden radiance and hotness under her conservative attire.  Fey radiates a simultaneous intelligence and exasperation that's ever gracious and nearly always welcome.  It's somewhat unfortunate that Admission, directed by Paul Weitz, inhabits Fey by trying to keep Portia down so much of the time.  In the sense that a strong independent and successfully career-minded woman, even in the finicky sociopolitical climate of 2013, still must be burdened and bridled by the archaic standard of having it all.  On the onset Admission is not too much unlike a star vehicle that Katharine Hepburn might have played many moons ago-- that of a savvy and sharp woman who must be brought down a few pegs in the nature of seeming "womanly" and thus, appealing.

It's a shame because Fey is absolutely appealing, whether lampooning Sarah Palin or shading the absurdities of singleton Liz Lemon, and furthermore she is appealing here, adroitly shading Portia with a reserve fitted around a freak flag desperate to shine through.  Admission gives Fey the most "dramatic" part she's ever played, perhaps suggesting, albeit subtly, that if that was a direction she wanted to turn to, Fey, the actor not the comic, might rise to that occasion someday.  Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) sod the edges of that drama in favor of a over-saturated film, one that's stuffed a bit too much, and nourished a bit too little.  The broader comic moments hit bigger, namely because the cast includes some of the brightest actors working, all of whom have a knowing sense on how to sell the jokes and gags no matter what.  For the reason that Admission tries to be too much, it takes away the slight pleasures that bring the whole film to a soft landing to begin with.

Firstly, it's presented as a lightly satiric jab at the admission process itself, an anarchic selection of pedigree, academics and social awareness.  It's a pageant that Portia thrives on, even as she slinks by during campus tours, and stridently advices would-be candidates to just, "be themselves."  There's even some friendly caddishness backstage as dueling admission officers Portia and Corinne (played by a wonderful, if under-utilized Gloria Reuben) compete for the affections of boss Clarence (Wallace Shawn) in the hopes of usurping his job.  A novel and refreshing take on false sisterhood in the attempts of rising above advances Admission a smidgeon, if only the parting shots.  This however is but lowest of priorities as the gradually convoluted television-ready plot contrivances start to top one another.

Secondly, the film is a romantic comedy.  This becomes apparent when Good Samaritan John Pressman (Paul Rudd) makes a plea to Portia to visit his progressive, unorthodox school in the hopes of finding Princetonian potential in one of his prodigal soon-to-be graduates-- a shaggy, haired awkwardly groomed book worm named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff.)  From the start of the meet-cute shenanigans of the pleasingly matched Fey and Rudd, it seems a given that the two will give it a go, especially since John is a noble, hippie who circulates the globe healing those in need; he even adopted a young Ugandan boy.

But first a bit of feminine rampaging must occur as Portia is involved with the selfish lout of an English professor (played to the hilt by Michael Sheen, who, by the way, once played an ill-fitted suitor to Liz Lemon)-- the film gets a lot better once he's cleared away, and Portia realizes both her freak flag and becomes more "womanly." Admission has a strange view of it's leading lady, but again it must be stressed that even the fickle sexual politicizing are soothed by Fey, and especially more so by the entrance of her mother, Susannah, a spirited feminist and novelist played by a luminous and stingingly insightful Lily Tomlin.  One almost wishes that Weitz had diverged from the text completely and just ran off with the movie as a mother-daughter project for Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin.  Their scenes have a bite, a fire and a spark that's too unsteady for the easy-listening refinement that Admission is going for.

I bring up Susannah because the third prong of Admission is that of motherhood.  The twist of the film-- not so much because it's revealed in the trailer for gosh darnit, and well, not a particularly novel twist in its own right-- is that Jeremiah, the odd young man with Ivy league potential, if not breeding, may or may not be the child that Portia gave up for adoption sixteen years prior.  And while this gesture, like all of the rest is all pleasant in going down, there is a big strike for the first and the third plot threads of Admission that asks, in the films most dramatic scene, if a hard broiled woman like Portia would vouch for the merits of admission to a case like Jeremiah without the hint of parentage?  It's not the most compelling question, nor a particularly strong reason to see a film like Admission, but there's a sense that the filmmakers were perhaps a little too afraid of a really strong woman to deal with as reason alone.  C+ 

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