About 15 minutes into Paul Weitz’s fine new film Admission, Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is put through the ringer by a group of exceptionally smart high schoolers who question the need for higher education and wonder why the esteemed institution she works for remains behind the times in its stance on certain social issues. Though initially taken aback, she’s able to field all of their questions, prompting teacher John Pressman (Paul Rudd) to say, “Glad you can handle a curve.”
Here’s hoping that viewers will be able to do the same. Focus Films is promoting the movie as a lighthearted, romantic romp, promising that its two appealing stars will engage in witty, antagonistic repartee and navigate a minefield of misunderstandings before ultimately falling in love. While these things do occur, the script by Karen Croner, an adaptation of the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel, contains far more serious concerns. The nature of parenthood and all the pitfalls inherent to it is the true focus of the film, dealing with it in a lighthearted but honest manner.
As rigid as a dumbbell, Nathan adheres to rules and regulations to such an extent that she’s boxed herself off emotionally. And while this approach serves her well professionally, it leads to more problems than she can handle personally as her relationship with her longtime partner Mark (Michael Sheen) implodes and there’s a gulf between her and her mother (Lily Tomlin) that no amount of therapy can bridge. But before she can build the walls around her even higher, Pressman drops a bomb on her. Seems he thinks that a brilliant young man at his alternative high school, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), who wants to attend Princeton, may be the son she gave up for adoption nearly 20 years ago.
This revelation kick-starts the film. It sends Nathan into a tailspin. She begins to act maternally while adhering to the strict moral guidelines of her job. As you would expect, Fey is quite good in handling all of this, properly flummoxed as the precise world her character has created erodes before her eyes. At times cool and confident, at others awkward and clumsy, the actress invests herself fully, embracing her character’s flaws and humanity, displaying them with a sincerity and vulnerability that makes us love her. The journey of self-discovery that Nathan’s forced to take is rife with comic pitfalls but it’s the introspective moments she goes through, which Fey nails, that turns the film into something more than just a disposable farce.
If Fey has a match on screen in terms of likability as well as comedic skill, it’s Rudd whose character is embroiled in a similar emotional journey. Father to an adopted son (Travaris Spears) and mentor to Jeremiah, Pressman has the best of intentions as far as mentoring these young men are concerned. However, his own unresolved issues with his mother continue to haunt him, something he fails to connect with how he goes about parenting. Rudd’s quite good at being earnest, and while his character makes some bad choices, the actor invests enough dignity in him that he never comes off as a fool, something that may not have happened in lesser hands.
As with most of the film, its ending does not play out as you would expect, which is refreshing. Those expecting a cute comedy are apt to be disappointed, but if you’re willing to go into Admission knowing that there’s just as much heart in its offbeat story as there is humor, you’re likely to come away from it knowing that you’ve seen a film that, while not groundbreaking, at least has the nerve to go against the norm, swimming upstream against audience expectations and easy narrative resolutions.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.