Fey and Rudd give smarter-than-expected but muddled "Admission" an uptick

Admission (2013)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Sold as another programmed romantic comedy but set up as an incisive, educational behind-the-scenes look at the college admission process, "Admission" is like a college applicant with more smarts and ambition than most but gets lost on campus from time to time. When the film focuses on its character interactions and the admission process, it's on-target, but the romantic angle feels forced and tacked-on for commercial appeal. However, it is almost unbelievable that, until now, lovable funnywoman Tina Fey and go-to everyman Paul Rudd have been wait-listed in sharing the screen together. Even with this whip-smart, enormously likable comedic pair, "Admission" is not hilarious, nor does it always try to be funny. The end result is a pleasantly lukewarm muddle.

Fey plays Portia Nathan, a focused, precise, hardworking admissions officer for Princeton University. She's done the job for 16 years, being just one of many in her department to sort through piles of applications and decide the futures of high school seniors. A call from John Pressman (Rudd, being Paul Rudd), the director of an alternative, granola-crunching high school in New Hampshire called New Quest, prompts Portia to take a recruiting road trip to the school. There, she meets a promising Princeton applicant, a brilliant idiosyncratic autodidact named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) with a few suspensions and a low GPA but an undeniable passion for knowledge and real potential. Then, just as nothing can affect her work, Portia's live-in professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) drops her for a pregnant Virginia Woolf scholar and she comes undone. The plot kicks into gear when John, a Dartmouth alumnus like Portia, has reason to believe Jeremiah is her son that she gave up for adoption when she was in college. If Jeremiah is her son, how hard will Portia push for him to get into the elitist Ivy League school?

Adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel of the same name by screenwriter Karen Croner, "Admission" seems at odds with itself. As mentioned before, the admission-process scenes hold the most interest, even if they do feel marginalized. In a crucial scene, where the staff votes on applicants the officers have personally denied and accepted (including Jeremiah), the incoming students physically appear as if on the chopping block and drop through a trap door if denied. It's a moment of fresh, satirical bite in an otherwise toothless film. When Portia goes into mom mode without telling Jeremiah and puts herself into a moral dilemma that could cost her her job, the film, directed by Paul Weitz (returning to better form after 2010's abysmal "Little Fockers"), finds its groove with the signs of deftness Weitz brought to "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." Unfortunately, the rest of the time the film weakens when trying to get its headliners together. Portia and John deliver a baby calf together in New Quest's barn, only to shower in stalls facing one another immediately after. Portia doesn't seem like a person that would do this, but the script has its way. 

Fey and Rudd are capable of bringing out unforced humor from relatable, human places and make this material more appealing than it should be. They have a nice ease together but no real heat, and there's really no reason for Portia and John to get together as more than friends—she's independent and businesslike, and he's loose and adventurous with an adopted son from Uganda (Travaris Spears). As the quirky Jeremiah, Wolff is a likable find. Missed on the screen, Lily Tomlin is wonderfully free-spirited as Portia's emotionally distant feminist/survivalist mother Susannah. She earns some acerbic laughs, but the mother-daughter subplot is only cursorily developed. The other women in the picture are either treated as competitive witches who may have a change of heart but might not (Gloria Reuben as Corinne, Portia's co-worker vying for the position of Dean of Admissions) or walking punchlines (the scholarly woman having Portia's ex-beau's twin babies).

Oddly enough, the film's dramatic moments are more assured than its comedic ones. "Admission" may suffer from an identity crisis, and the pacing is a little flaccid as you wish they'd just get on with it already, but there is no denying the simple pleasure of watching Fey and Rudd together. You don't have to be a Princeton graduate to know where things are headed, although a third-act revelation should take the viewer by surprise. It's not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it's smarter than one would expect and leaves Portia with more hope than just a Hollywoodized happy ending. Next time, maybe Fey and Rudd can apply themselves in writing their own movie that makes more use of their comedic edge.

Grade: C +