Tina Fey’s work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock demonstrated she’s a world-class wit. But, like so many comics before her, Fey apparently wants to be known as more than simply a purveyor of punch lines or a jovial jokester.
But she’s not doing a startling about-face the way Bill Murray once did back in the mid-1980s, when he abruptly segued from Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters to play a disillusioned World War I veteran in an awkward adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge that prompted laughter of the unintentional kind. Fey is comparatively cautious.
In Admission, a comedy-drama adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, she plays the high-powered and slightly high-strung Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton who spends her life analyzing the aspirations of ambitious teenagers. Although she probably wouldn’t claim the title, Portia is a professional dream-crusher: Over 26,000 high schoolers beg for her approval and only about 1 in 25 actually get it.
But while Portia comfortably sits in judgment of others, she’s hardly the woman who has it all. She’s living with a drippy English department chairman who reads Chaucer in bed and shows his affection for Portia by patting her on the head like a dog.
At work, Portia becomes increasingly unstable and erratic as she campaigns for the job of dean of admissions. In her personal life, she steers clear of her mother, fiery feminist author Susannah Nathan, who quotes Erica Jong, sports a Bella Abzug tattoo on her shoulder and supposedly conceived Portia after hooking up with a fellow passenger on a New Jersey Transit train; she was instantly seduced when she saw he was reading “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
Susannah is played to perfection by Lily Tomlin, whose beautifully modulated performance balances eccentricity, boldness and a surprising sensitivity. Watching Tomlin and Fey struggling to find common ground turns out to be the most rewarding aspect of Admission.
Unfortunately, their rocky relationship is merely a subplot. The central story involves Portia’s entanglement with prospective Princeton scholar Jeremiah (played by Nat Wolff), who is being mentored by Portia’s former Dartmouth classmate, John Pressman (played by Paul Rudd).
John is convinced that Jeremiah figures prominently in Portia’s past, thanks to a rather far-fetched incident that happened back at Dartmouth. While trying to sell Portia on Jeremiah’s genius, John also falls in love with her, which gives the title its double meaning: Portia is in charge of admissions and John is trying to get her to admit more about herself than she’s willing to.
Fey ‘s assured, extremely likable characterization keeps Admission chugging along, although it’s not always an easy ride. Paul Weitz launched his directorial career promisingly with American Pie and About a Boy more than a decade ago, but his track record since then has been spotty (he was responsible for the misguided American Idol spoof American Dreamz and Little Fockers, which was the cinematic equivalent of water-boarding ).
He doesn’t give this scattershot story much of a shape or a style, and neither does screenwriter Karen Croner, who did a superior job of adapting Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing, about a family wrestling with the question of assisted suicide, into a solid showcase for Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger and William Hurt back in 1998.
The first third of Admission is breezy and off-the-cuff, taking a lighthearted approach to Portia’s situation. Croner has less success attempting to blend the furtive romance between Portia and John, the wackiness in Portia’s office and the long-suppressed personal crisis that’s about to hit Portia like a tidal wave of tears.
What results is a movie that wobbles between frothy comedy, bittersweet drama and lackluster love story. It’s up to Fey to carry the load, and she does an impressive job, as she banters engagingly with Rudd, exchanges tart one-liners with Tomlin and finds the vulnerability inside Portia’s armor-plated heart. While Admission barely makes the grade, its leading lady is a class act.