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It’s Academic

by Laura Leon on March 28, 2013

Directed by Paul Weitz


With the hard-surface crackle and interior mushiness of some sort of overpriced gourmet candy, Admission promises wacky comedy, hints at cogent social satire, and delivers only a few chuckles and some nice moments between Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.

Fey hits the books in ADMISSION

Fey plays Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer whose radical-feminist, off-the-grid mom Susannah (Lily Tomlin) has spent a lifetime building her up only to be disappointed in her “boring” life choices. As the story begins, it’s “travel season,” which for Portia means schlepping her rah-rah act on the road to schools in which uniformed students busily write down every word she utters, as if their life depends upon it—well, in a way, it does. One of the conceits of Admission—the original novel, not so much the movie—is the lengths to which families go to get their kid into the “right” school, right down to gleefully mocking the pretensions of high school juniors who list a plethora of languages spoken, crafts perfected, continents traveled, and irrigation systems installed. The students Portia speaks to are about the same age in years as she has spent working in admissions, but the movie fails to connect the dots that would have made this fact a delicious point of comparison.

Rudd plays John Freeman, a Dartmouth grad who leapfrogs from one Third World nation to another to solve problems of social and environmental injustice. At the movie’s opening, he’s in New Hampshire at one of those schools where you design your own curriculum, nurture your inner vegan and learn that stickin’ it to the man will leave the world a better place. There’s a rare bit of verbal spark displayed when Portia, having been verbally flummoxed by a modern day equivalent of the high school SNL, lashes out about why studying medicine or physics or, god forbid, law doesn’t automatically make you “the man.” (Or, womyn?)

For the most part, the movie settles into goofy romance, with some mistaken identity and whose-the-mama baby drama thrown in. To say more would be to give away spoilers, which, however obvious, tend to annoy readers. Let’s just say that John’s precocious, socially awkward student Jeremiah (Nicholas Wolf) is that delightful odd duck that you don’t want seen thrown to the admissions wolves, and the fact that he shares many of the same traits as Portia . . . well, that can only help in the admissions process. Or can it?

Admission occasionally makes a foray into defending those kids (or their parents) who weren’t overachievers from the womb, and there are a few good digs at the types of moms and dads who, for all the wrong reasons, get overly involved with the entire college-selection process. Better work is done in depicting the weird society that is academia, from Portia’s fuddy-duddy professorial live-in Mark (slyly played by Michael Sheen), who reads poetry in Old English, to faculty/administration lunches and, best of all, the not-so-subtly roiling competition among the folks in the admissions office who want to take over when the old man (Wallace Shawn) finally retires. For those who have read Kingsley Amis, this stuff smacks of genius, and I wish there was more of it.

There’s also promise, however nipped in the bud, in the parallel stories of the contentious relationships between Portia and Susannah, and that of John and his adopted African son Nelson (Travaris Spears, appealing without being too cute). Susannah wishes her daughter would stop calling her mom, and doesn’t get that Portia would feel bound by traditional notions of the familial bond; she eschews Portia’s desire for some sort of domestic normalcy. Meanwhile, John prides himself on showing his son the world, oblivious to the fact that Nelson likes having roots and routine. Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner play this off as a gentle series of misunderstandings, rather than take aim at the self-centered pretension that makes their characters think that making loud political statements is the same thing as providing a warm and loving home. But that’s how Admission plays out; it’s light and occasionally funny, but leaves you wishing for a little more to sink your teeth into.