At first glance, Admission seems like a routine romantic sitcom tricked out with a slightly upscale plot wrinkle. The leading female, Portia, is an admissions officer at Princeton University, and her male counterpart, John, is the head of a new-agey prep school who’s touting a non-traditional applicant. Portia and John meet-cute over the aspiring Ivy Leaguer, even though the kid is not exactly what he seems to be.
That synopsis may sound terminally trivial, but director Paul Weitz (Being Flynn, Little Fockers, About a Boy), screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel), and actors Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, and Nat Wolff have some tricks up their sleeves. The double-entendre title might as well go triple. Portia the gatekeeper (Fey) has an admissions job to perform; the discoveries she makes force her to admit certain things to herself, about herself; and the plot twists — we’ll try not to spoil any surprises — admit frank observations about higher education and the marketing of perceived status into an otherwise tame scenario.
Portia takes her job ver-rr-ry seriously. At the peak of the college admissions season, she’s contending with another driven careerist (Gloria Reuben) to fill the post soon to be vacated by the retiring dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn, biting off his lines as usual). Princeton is depicted as the epitome “power-university” destination for ambitious students and their anxious parents. Portia spends much time fending off the overly eager. Meanwhile at home, her relationship with her wet-dishcloth lit prof boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) is circling the drain. So she’s feeling stressed and unloved.
As if by magic, Portia gets a phone call from John, a former college classmate and now head of the woodsy, alternative New Quest School. John is pitching Jeremiah, a uniquely gifted young man whose academic record is un-Princeton-like, but whose test scores are phenomenal. Portia hears these come-ons all the time in her business, but John persists and eventually leads Portia to believe Jeremiah is actually her son, the child Portia gave up for adoption years earlier. Both a classic conflict of interest and a procedural chain of events are thus established, but for the three main characters the stakes seem higher than just who gets into Princeton next fall. In Portia’s case, the temptation arises to give Jeremiah a helping hand. Uh-oh.
Fey has a knack for portraying women who do wrong things for the right reasons. Even though the story pushes her fragile appeal to its limit, it’s refreshing to see a moral quandary in her general vicinity. Straight man Rudd (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) necessarily has less to do. ‘Twas ever thus. The antidote to the Princeton preppy snobbishness (whatever convinced that university to let itself to be the butt of the joke, anyway?) is Portia’s hippie mom, played by Lily Tomlin in full Berkeley mode. As for the kid, it’s impossible to predict if he’s going to be the next Julian Assange, a future CIA director, or an heirloom tomato farmer. He’s certainly the most pathetic ventriloquist ever portrayed in the history of film. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
The biggest problem with Admission is that the characters appear to dissolve in mid-air as we’re watching them. It’s not that they’re too lightweight. If anything they’re too virtuous. Portia’s backstabbing colleague Corinne — played by an actress who has impersonated Condoleezza Rice, no less — fits our sense of proportion better. That ultimately fails to matter. The jokes are subtle but sharply pointed, the dialogue is smart without being cruel, and we get to peek in on a high-priced university’s farcical selection process. We begin to see the humor in larger things connected to Big Education, like think tanks and corporations. Just the thing to lift spirits as the Great Recession enters its baroque phase.