Film review: ‘Admission’

Tina Fey looks characteristically flustered in "Admission," out today. Credit: David Lee/Focus Features
Tina Fey looks characteristically flustered in “Admission,” out today.
Credit: David Lee/Focus Features

‘Admission’
Director: Paul Weitz
Stars: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd
Rating: PG-13
3 Globes

Two different movies are united by one character in “Admission.” The first movie is about the college application process and how elite universities function. Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has been at the university for 16 years and with English professor/twit Mark (Michael Sheen) for ten. Portia takes annual road trips to recruit potential Princetonians, and her visit to an idealistic alternative high school run by John Pressman (Paul Rudd) opens up the second movie.

“You never wanted kids?” John asks childless Portia over dinner. “I love that question,” Portia replies, suggesting weary years of justifying a personal decision to thoughtless strangers, before explaining she didn’t want to screw up a child like her mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) did with her. Susannah’s a first-wave feminist with Bella Abzug tattooed on her left arm who claims to have conceived Portia on a New Jersey Transit train with a man whose name she didn’t know nor care to find out. She wanted sperm for a child, not a relationship. John says he’s figured out his freakishly bright student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is Portia’s kid, one she had in college and put up for adoption.

John’s a globe-trotting, save-the-world adoptive dad who worries he’s screwing up his Ugandan son Nelson (Travaris Spears), who lusts for the preppy anchor-festooned jackets and related trappings of his dad’s patrician parents. “Admission” is too neat in giving one childless parent and one worried dad the chance to form a nuclear family unit, but it’s sporadically honest about how moms and dads worry about every decision made and unmade.

“Admission”’s take on college is even more hit-and-miss. As public awareness of student debt as America’s next great financial crisis grows, a movie about an Ivy League school in which money’s never mentioned comes off tone deaf. It’s a shame, since director Paul Weitz has shown awareness of economic social realities rarely mentioned in studio movies before, notably trying to think about what globalization and attendant job instability might look like through Dennis Quaid’s ad salesman character in 2004′s “In Good Company.”

There’s token jabs at unimaginative admissions processes which favor tidy, extracurricular-packed applications from heavily coached students, but no serious jabs. Still, it’s nice to see a movie which trots out words like “autodidact” without apology, and which earnestly believes in the value of a liberal arts education for its own sake, even if it’s not clear who’s hiring on the other side.


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