Despite the promise of two charming leads seemingly perfect for the material, Admission sadly proves that a cast list that looks good on paper isn’t always the best in practice. Starring Tina Fey as a stringently by-the-book admissions officer who discovers via Paul Rudd’s laid-back head teacher that her biological son wants to attend Princeton University, the film aims to be a romantic comedy but actually finds its strengths elsewhere. As a rom-com, for example, it isn’t particularly funny or very romantic, but that doesn’t make it a failure.
At best, Admission is a biting and refreshingly honest (we can assume) look into the US college admission system for Ivy League schools such as Princeton. Via this intriguing story thread, we get to explore issues of class, elitism and, yes, nepotism, as we watch Portia (Fey) attempting to manipulate Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) into a school that chooses pupils based on a complicated combination of academic achievement, familial privilege and perceived potential. A good sob story always works, too.
Of course, Tina Fey is always good value, and her performance as a reluctant mother forced to reconnect with her teenage son is never as irritating as it should be. She pulls it off most simply because she’s Tina Fey and we’ve seen her play this kind of character before, but that doesn’t make the performance less entertaining. Her chemistry with Rudd is a little lacking, however, with a romance that appears entirely unnecessary to the film’s ultimate goal. At times, the drama, the romantic comedy and satire are all running at the same time, with no indication of what we should be focusing on.
This all means that Paul Rudd is rendered a little out of place, as his role to play in proceedings actually turns out to be less important than we, and he, first thought. It’s as if he was cast simply to stand beside Fey on the posters, to provide the filmmakers with a hook, any hook, on which to sell tickets for the film. The film is never a grand love story – it’s not even a particularly sweet one – but a movie about a woman in her 40s who has to re-evaluate her love life, her family life and her commitment to her job. That’s not very sexy, sure, but it’s also not a bad thing once bums are in seats.
With Portia’s story being what it is, it’s surprising that Admission isn’t more tempted to get over-sentimental about the emotional toll of adoption for the biological parent. It’s rare to have this storyline played out without some sort of subtle judgement and redemption for said mother, for example, so it’s nice to see a previously mishandled lifestyle choice being so rationally accepted. As with director Paul Weitz’s About A Boy, she’s forced to confront her reluctance to start a family, but is never shamed for not wanting it beforehand.
And while I say that Admission isn’t particularly funny, there are a couple of effective jokes dotted throughout. Portia’s live-in boyfriend of ten years (Michael Sheen), having run off with Penny from Lost (or Sonya Walger, as she probably prefers to be called), pops up at inopportune times to rub salt in the wound, which is a lot more amusing and less cruel than it sounds. There are also some laughs to be had from the shameless college applicants, whose stories range from revenge fantasies to being the captain of every team in the school.
Admission isn’t the film you might be expecting, but it’s still worth a watch. The disparate and chaotic story threads never quite mesh together or lead to a satisfying conclusion but, the upside to covering lots of bases is that there’s pretty much something for most to enjoy. It works best as a dramedy about the slight dishonesty and ludicrousness of the college admissions system, with Fey’s wavering officer trying to beat said system. The romantic-comedy it’s trying to be just isn’t as interesting.