Were it the product of a screenwriting class, the script for Admission would not be Princeton material — or the material of many other fine institutions of higher learning, for that matter.
The latest big-screen vehicle for Tina Fey is a blandly quirky romantic comedy that showcases its star’s ability to be both endearing and genuinely funny, yet falls flat with a wildly unfocused story that doesn’t achieve its intended emotional payoff.
Fey plays Portia, a respected Princeton admissions officer who hides behind her straight-laced and judgmental professional persona while her personal life crumbles behind the scenes. She visits an upstart boarding school run by John (Paul Rudd), a former college acquaintance who claims that one of his most promising students (Nat Wolff) actually is Portia’s biological son who also happens to be an Ivy League hopeful.
Meanwhile, Portia’s academic husband (Michael Sheen) decides to leave her for a younger woman, causing a descent into emotional instability. She resists the overtures of John, an impulsive free spirit whose pursuit of Portia is designed as an opposites-attract scenario that also might allow her to rediscover the value of family.
Admission is directed in straightforward fashion by Paul Weitz (Little Fockers) from a screenplay by Karen Croner (One True Thing), adapted from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, that tries unsuccessfully to juggle various shifts in pace and tone, from broad farce to relationship drama to various stops in between. Of course, there’s also a predictably uplifting finale.
On one hand, the film offers an amusing (and not very flattering) glimpse inside a cold-hearted Ivy League admissions office. However, there are basic authenticity issues with the characters and story that a handful of sharp jokes and appealing performances can’t overcome.
Fey’s usual self-deprecating wit and charm only sporadically rise above the plot mechanics. Fortunately, the supporting cast brings some energy to the proceedings, most notably Lily Tomlin, who steals her scenes as Portia’s eccentric feminist mother.
By the end, it comes down to simple math — are there enough laughs to compensate for the clumsy plot contrivances? Like the Princeton admissions office’s decision on most of its candidates, the answer is a swift and decisive “no.”
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.