Friday, March 22, 2013

Admission: Not quite top marks

Admission (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity and mild sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Paul Weitz obviously courts variety; his writing and directing résumé includes everything from dumb comedy (American Pie, Little Fockers) and impudent horror (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) to the heartfelt relationship dramedy of About a Boy.

Admissions officer Portia (Tina Fey) can't understand why John (Paul Rudd, right) is so
enthusiastic about getting Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) into Princeton; as far as she can tell,
this young man — although certainly personable — just isn't university material, let
alone Princeton material. But she's about to learn a detail that will seriously
compromise her objectivity.
His newest film, Admission, belongs in the latter’s company; its frequently whimsical, romantic-comedy trappings are blended with some sharp social commentary about the lengths to which parents and students will go, to ensure entry to an appropriately prestigious university.

That’s a delicate balance to maintain, and for the most part scripter Karen Croner succeeds; we’re never quite sure whether it’s appropriate to root for what the central characters seem to want, in this adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s perceptive novel. Even well-motivated actions have unfortunate consequences, and one’s past has a way of revealing that an apparently “comfortable” life may be little more than a façade.

Admission also is a big-screen starring vehicle for Tiny Fey, who needs a solid next step in a career that has been dominated, until recently, by her all-consuming involvement with television’s 30 Rock. Fey is smart, savvy and sharp: an all-around talent who hasn’t always been served well by her occasional trips to the big screen. She was ill-used in trivial fluff such as Date Night and The Invention of Lying, and her more successful presence in Baby Mama had just as much to do with co-star (and frequent cohort) Amy Poehler.

In a nutshell, then, Fey could use a few starring roles that grant her characters with the all-essential blend of intelligence, comic impulsiveness and vulnerability that has made 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon such a delight for so many years. Weitz and Croner come close to granting her the necessary formula in Admission, although Fey’s character here is just a bit too much the helpless victim for my taste. But that’s a personal judgment call, and likely not enough of an issue to bother most viewers.

Portia Nathan (Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University, one of the dozen or so “gatekeepers” who evaluate thousands of applicants every spring, and then decide which anxious high school seniors will win entry within these Ivy League walls.

Korelitz is a former part-time application reader for Princeton, so if this aspect of Weitz’s film has the queasy, casually cruel tone of reality, it’s no accident. Korelitz knows the territory, and Croner has done her best to replicate the impossible necessity of such a job: of the need to choose between this gymnast with multiple extracurricular activities, or that impassioned scholar with an aptitude for different languages.

Korelitz’s book employs a narrative device that allows us to eavesdrop on various application essays; Weitz and Croner replicate that gimmick here by having Portia imagine these various young hopefuls standing in front of her, as they eloquently argue their own merits ... only to drop through a hidden trap door and vanish forever, as she regretfully discards yet another fat orange folder.

Portia has compartmentalized her life and profession to a degree that most of us would find repressively claustrophobic, but she’s happy. She shares her home with Mark (Michael Sheen), a Princeton professor who seems equally content with their lengthy — but unmarried — relationship; at work, she hopes to out-maneuver Corinne (Gloria Reuben), an office rival vying for the top spot soon to open with the impending retirement of Clarence, the dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn).

Things therefore feel like business as usual, when Portia hits the road for her annual recruiting trip, circulating through high schools filled with eager students hoping to learn “the secret” to a successful application. Actually, there’s a bit more edge this time out; Princeton has just “slipped” to No. 2 in the national rankings, and Clarence wants that corrected before he vacates his office.

Portia’s stops include a first-timer: New Quest, a country-fied alternative high school whose confrontational students reject her rote patter and question the need to participate in such a “corporate” ritual. This hostility notwithstanding, Quest’s senior class also includes Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a dedicated learner who genuinely wants to attend Princeton. His cause is further championed by New Quest teacher John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who trades on a slim, long-ago connection to Portia, during her own college days.

He also drops a bombshell that completely alters the way she views Jeremiah ... even though she cannot be anything but purely objective, with respect to any potential applicant.

This bit of information is the high-concept comedy spanner that strips the gears of Portia’s rigorously ordered life, and it’s not the only unpleasant surprise coming. How she’ll react to all this, and whether she can pick up the emotional pieces, fuels what follows.

And it’s safe to say, without revealing any details, that things don’t always turn out as anticipated.

Fey hits her stride once Portia enters the flustered zone of no control; few deliver utter exasperation with such a marvelous blend of mortification and perfect comic timing. Fey’s tart one-liners take on an air of increased desperation, her dwindling security reflected in the way she begins to over-trim her office bonsai (a cute running gag).

Rudd delivers another pleasantly understated performance, much like his recent work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pressman is a basically decent guy who has, nonetheless, sipped too freely from the Kool-Aid of his own self-righteous “defender of the Earth” sentimentality. He’s presumptuous and overly passionate, but remains endearing nonetheless; that’s a delicate line to walk, and Rudd manages to retain our sympathy.

Lily Tomlin pops up as Susannah, Portia’s iconoclastic, Whole Earth-y mother: a waspish, counter-culture goddess with nothing but contempt for her daughter’s conventional, button-down life. Tomlin deliciously chews her way through some truly vicious dialogue, although we can’t help laughing at Susannah’s hypocrisy; she’s just as constricted by her turned-on/tuned-out life, as Portia is by hers.

Wolff is a bit too precious as Jeremiah, perhaps over-playing the “on the spectrum” aspects of this young man’s impulsive and aggressively obsessed approach to education. He’s obviously an honorable individual, and we like him, but we don’t get to know him nearly as well as Pressman’s adopted son, Nelson; Travaris Spears delivers a much more satisfying performance in that role.

That said, Nelson might be one sidebar plot too many, much as I enjoyed Spears’s work.

Shawn is a droll delight, as always, and Reuben turns Corinne into the sort of office schemer we’ve all met ... and wanted to squash, like a bug. Sheen takes great delight in making Mark a spineless, insensitive jerk: the sort of puffed-up academic who personifies everything the New Quest students loathe about the whole Ivy League thing.

Michael Genadry makes a strong, sympathetic impression as Ben, one of Portia’s junior colleagues.

Admission gets its charm from these intriguing and amusing characters, and Croner’s script finds plenty of engaging ways to throw them together. But although I like the film, it doesn’t resonate because of Fey’s performance; I’m much more apt to remember this story’s grim depiction of the Princeton admissions process. That suggests Weitz didn’t get the balance quite right ... which means, I suspect, that Fey still needs to seek a better, stronger, big-screen starring vehicle.

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