Directed By: Paul Weitz
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Lily Tomlin, Gloria Reuben, Travaris Spears
“Admission” isn’t loaded with rapid-fire laughs, but it’s because director Paul Weitz opts to give the material a chance to breathe and develops it into a more thoughtful comedy, making it more memorable than a mere fleeting attempt at earning a laugh.
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is an all-business college admissions officer. She’s dedicated her life to plucking the brightest young minds from Princeton’s abundance of applicant folders to help uphold the university’s sky-high standards, so when her boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), announces he’s preparing to retire and find a replacement, Portia is hell-bent on getting the job. In an effort to outdo her competition, Portia agrees to expand her annual recruiting trip to visit an alternative school at the request of a former college classmate-turned-teacher, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Trouble is, John doesn’t just want Portia there to gloat about Princeton’s rigorous application process; he thinks one of his students might be Portia’s son.
When a film’s got a poster featuring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and a trailer with a cow-birthing scene, it’s easy to brand “Admission” your average commercial comedy. However, Weitz uses a far more naturalistic form of humor and a good deal of honest emotion to turn “Admission” into something relatable, amusing, and particularly charming.
The college admissions shtick is an instant winner for anyone who went through or plans to go through the process. Weitz’s representation of the selection procedure is loaded with frighteningly real choosing factors, but heightened enough to make it more playful than malicious. However, Weitz also never lets the comedy undermine the true intensity of college admissions. While there’s a degree of pleasure that comes with watching Portia trounce around, warning future applicants that there’s no secret to getting into Princeton, there’s an inherent sadness to her lifestyle, too. She’s got no child of her own, a boyfriend who’s affection for her is clearly waning, and has poured her entire life into this machine that makes decisions based purely on numbers and lineage, not on who a person really is. And that makes for the perfect groundwork for Natt Wolff’s Jeremiah to walk right in in the most opportune light.
Not only is Jeremiah the student John believes is Portia’s child, but he’s actually preparing to apply to college and would love to go to Princeton. He may have an abysmal transcript and a subpar list of extracurricular activities, but he’s naturally gifted, far exceeding other applicants with his passion to learn. Jeremiah’s the perfect example of a student who’s capable of doing well at a top school like Princeton, but might never get the chance because those assets weren’t cultivated as a kid. While this is likely the case with a great deal of bright college hopefuls out there, Wolff turns Jeremiah into a standout through an impressively thoughtful performance. Jeremiah isn’t just some cliché geeky character; he’s a real person with layers. You can see it in the character’s background, details and progression, and you can also see it in Wolff.
While Wolff excels on his own and shares a great arc with Fey, culminating in a notably moving scene, his connection with Rudd’s character is rather stale, and it’s likely due to the fact that the large majority of the material surrounding John is on the sillier side and far less impactful. Perhaps there are schools like New Quest out there, but for someone who knows little to nothing about that type of education, New Quest feels exaggerated. Even with a scene during which John’s students school Portia on the value of an Ivy League education, the farm-like setting, multitude of shots showing students gardening and, again, the cow-birthing incident, making it tough to picture the establishment as a legitimate school. Plus, Rudd is as far from a convincing teacher as they come. We don’t see him teach a class and never get a sense of what he’s even capable of teaching. All we learn about John is that he’s got a passion for traveling and will drop New Quest in an instant to go abroad with his adopted son who so desperately just wants to stay put. John’s motivations are underdeveloped across the board. If it wasn’t for Portia being a successful complete character, John’s influence on the Jeremiah situation could have demolished the entire film.
“Admission” stays firmly afloat thanks to Fey with an assist from Wolff. Some of her situations tread into unrealistic territory, but, overall, Portia is a remarkably layered comedic lead and Fey does a stellar job balancing the humor with honest drama. Per usual, her comedic timing is spot-on from beginning to end, selling more blatant gags like her failing relationship with Michael Sheen’s Mark while also dropping countless one-liners that may not make you laugh out loud, but rather evoke a pleasantly natural chuckle when you realize how closely you can connect.
Not every joke is a hit and Rudd’s portion of the film is baseless and often dull, but “Admission” is still a standout with two immensely likable leads as well as a grounded and relatable plot.
By Perri Nemiroff