In the wake of 30 Rock’s departure, scads of Tina Fey fans are surely on the hunt for their new Liz Lemon fix. But while Fey is as game and endearing as ever in Paul Weitz’s Admission, a Princeton-set dramedy that casts the comedienne as Portia, a high-strung admissions counselor, this is hardly the vehicle to sate Fey’s devotees. Written by Karen Croner, the sadly unlikable movie has its share of watered-down feminism, with plucky women in power positions, frenemy reconciliations for the greater, gal-pal good, and a mother character (played to the hilt by an above-it-all Lily Tomlin) who authors such books as The Masculine Myth and spills news of her double mastectomy to Portia as if sharing the day’s forecast. The estrogenic elements prove widely ineffectual, but they’re just pieces of this overlong, overloaded misfire, whose double-entendre title, which is as much about ditching stubbornness and secrets as it is about academics, ultimately just goads the jaded viewer to admit defeat.
Following in the footsteps of recent films like Trouble with the Curve, which pulled a reverse-Moneyball by scoffing at stats and championing old-fashioned talent-scouting, Admission is also an anti-elitist film, critiquing the Ivy League selection process by highlighting the worth of students who don’t fit stringent profiles. Portia is a woman who’s guzzled down the Princeton Kool-Aid, keeping obsessive, scrutinous tabs on her prospective students’ files, maintaining her pristine office like Monica Geller in a pant suit, and letting that stiff mindset follow her home—a home she shares with Mark (Michael Sheen), a bland professor who’s more showpiece than partner.
The proverbial script is flipped when Portia gets a call from John (Paul Rudd), a former college classmate and current alternative high school teacher, whose anti-establishment students are on paths to reusable-bag lifestyles, and whose unlikely prodigy, Jeremiah (a remarkable Nat Wolff), is pitched as the best student Princeton doesn’t know it wants. Partly galvanized by the fact that her institution just fell to number two on U.S. News and World Report’s haughty best-school roster, Portia makes the trek to John’s down-on-the-farm academy, at which point Admission slathers on the tropes, making its heroine a fish out of water, a soon-to-be-tamed shrew, and a woman with hackneyed reasons behind her ironic wish to never have children.
For Weitz, Admission is at least an improvement over his last film, Being Flynn, which presented poverty, addiction, and Robert De Niro with the utmost shrillness. One of his nifty triumphs here is a stylistic trick that sees Portia envision her eager applicants standing before her, their attributes displayed as she recites them from their files. It’s a flourish that’s brings out the most humanness in the character (there’s a genuine sense that she wants these kids to change the world), and it’s especially effective during a compelling—albeit certainly fabricated—final-committee meeting, wherein hopefuls, if rejected, fall through an imaginary door in the floor. Still, the director clearly struggled to balance this story’s precarious heap of plot points, which, to boot, include a breakup with Mark that makes for a mean-spirited running gag, an inevitable romance with John (who, for worldly cred, has an adopted son from Uganda), and a final re-twist of a twist that, in timing and emotional manipulation, can only be described as an insult.
As she weathers this cannonade of developments, Portia, of course, finds a new path in life (and don’t worry about picking up on the symbolism of the multiple “No Admittance” signs, or the desktop Bonsai tree that Portia prunes to its woody skeleton—the movie explains all of that for you). Admission itself points to a new path that needs to be taken by you-go-girl flicks, which, from The Devil Wears Prada on down, continue to peddle the same tired, job-is-the-enemy narrative. Such is something to which this film not only subscribes, but kowtows, making Submission seem a more apt title.