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‘Admission’ Review: Accept Fey, Deny the Film

Oh, Tina Fey, how the silver screen needs you. But not like this, not like in Paul Weitz’s Admission. Having the 30 Rock star lead a dramedy as a Princeton admissions officer on the ever-winding road to self-discovery sounds like a winning formula in itself. But no, let’s throw every kind of mishap and challenge under the sun into the mix. These trials include: losing her partner of 10 years, dealing with last-minute pressure at her job, coming to terms with her straw feminist mother (more on her later), falling in love, and, the real “crux” of the story: finding out the son she gave up for adoption wants to attend Princeton.

Just one or two of those might work in a story about a person who’s stuck in a metaphorical rut discovering herself, and all of them would thrive in a script that knows how to handle them. But Admission never rises to the challenge, simply throwing these devices out and resolving them without ever finding a clever or insightful way to bring them all together to say something about its lead character. Oh, and the film also wants to function as a critique on the process of admitting students to college, but the satire hardly bites or stings. A little bit of this and a little bit of that can go a long way, but the jambalaya of Admission tastes rather bland. For starters, the film kicks off and dives into the central conflict perhaps a bit too quickly, having introduced Portia only on a surface level. Then the tumult of her personal and professional life begins and more or less fills up the remainder of Admission. Of course, these events hardly tell us about the character as the film moves forward, despite showing us much of what happens to her. To that end, the film more often than not relegates its terrific cast to functioning as plot devices. Michael Sheen’s appearances as Portia’s former lover, as well as he handles them, function simply as uncomfortable run-in gags. Rudd, as the teacher who introduces Portia to the Princeton hopeful, is game as always; he’s believable as a love interest for Fey, though the script hardly tries to give them much chemistry beyond placing them in the same place. Lily Tomlin runs with the role of Portia’s mother, a strange mix of the straw-feminist trope and the mother-as-a-mentor trope, even if the role moves forward languidly. The jokes arising from the role often feel too lazy to even come from the straw feminist trope, which means the sincere moments hardly feel like an about-face for the character. But Tomlin makes the bitter role go down a little more easily. Nat Wolff and Travaris Spears, as the Princeton hopeful and Rudd’s adopted son, respectively, impress in rather underdeveloped roles - oddly enough, it’s the latter who gets more to do despite being only a small part of the film’s framework. Gloria Reuben, who gave a small but powerful performance in Lincoln last year, hits her comic moments with an icy chill as Fey’s work rival - even if her primary scene with Fey makes little sense if any at all. Character actor Wallace Shawn suffices as the man in charge at Princeton’s admissions department.

Karen Croner’s script throws in moments of awkwardness for humor’s sake as many screenwriters do. One could easily harvest this particular story for uncomfortable interactions and exchanges between primary characters. However, such instances feel awkward by accident instead of by design thanks to lots of framing issues - including the overused technique shot reverse shot - and a lack of tone all around. Scenes that should induce belly laughs induce little more than a slight laugh. It makes sense that the film misses the mark when it comes to setting the mood because it never bothered to set one up at the beginning.

Weitz and Croner tell a journey of self-discovery – one ripe with possibilities for earnest laughter, dramatic tension, and an ending that forsakes saccharine sweetness for palpability. It gets the last one right, but the other two criteria strangely float off, far away from Admission. We never quite find out who Portia is beyond her occupation or circumstances. The film drastically misses that chance at the beginning and never makes any progress to develop the character throughout the rest of the narrative. Some films can get away with one-dimensional leads, but films aiming to delve into and explore a character certainly don’t fall into that category. Still, Fey expertly balances the often too-subtle strokes of drama and frequently too-awkward bits of comedy. The actress can turn on a dime without feeling unnatural or gimmicky, proving she’s worthy of great film roles. (How about throwing some her way, Hollywood?) Admission weighs down its lead character with the many plots of the story meant to give her definition, but that Fey can come out of it unscathed is a testament to her talent. Granted, one really wishes she wrote Admission. After all, she did write Mean Girls, easily the best teen comedy since 2000 and perhaps the best teen comedy period. I have no trouble singing Fey’s praises, and Admission makes it easier to repeat the chorus - even if it’s hardly a strong acting showcase. The film comes with some fun moments - Fey’s active imagination helping her suss through prospective college students, her blowing up at a group of prospective college students who are unreceptive at best and confrontational at worst, Tomlin yelling, “No means no!” - but most of the humor attempts don’t stick. At least the film wraps up its story in a nice but hardly sentimental way. In fact, it’s the ending you might hope for as Admission progresses. Too bad that it’s a character study that fails to actually study any of its characters - let alone its primary character - as it instead opts to throw Fey’s way a multitude of storylines that can’t balance each other out, character inconsistencies, and tropes and clichés that are even flatter than you might imagine. Despite a terrific cast headed by the brilliant Tina Fey, Admission fails to make the grade.


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