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She's helping choose the elect, sort of


It might seem likely that Princeton University declined to cooperate in the making of the new Tina Fey comedy, Admission, given the movie’s rather comically irreverent take on that august institution’s student selection procedures. But no, some of Admission was shot on Princeton’s campus last summer, with permission. Good sports, those Princeton worthies, what? (Actually, the movie’s use of the university’s hallowed halls and verdant expanses isn’t particularly interesting.)

The title refers, of course, to the university’s annual selection of its freshman class, but it’s also allusively double-edged in a way that’s finally not so amusing as the film’s wry attention to the admissions office’s operation, nor meant to be.

Fey is Portia, a veteran admissions and recruitment officer and a key player in her office. In fact, she’s a potential candidate to replace the soon-to-retire admissions dean (Wallace Shawn in a nice little impersonation of sham geniality and affected democratic integrity).

Very early on, Portia encounters a group of hopeful adolescents touring the campus and is asked to say something helpful. “What’s the secret to getting in?” she says “Just be yourself.” Which is rather rich since virtually nobody, not the young applicants, not the faculty, nor the admissions staff, is really true to this honest ethos. The movie’s amusedly jaundiced depiction of the admissions office shows it functioning in its low-key fashion, as a center of competition as intense as the high school students’ efforts.

Each of the staff vies to get their favorite candidates’ files marked “accepted,” as the culling process works its way toward the final selection meeting. There’s also that coveted impending vacancy in the dean’s office. He assumes what’s intended to be a reasonable mien as he urges his little army of mutually wary admission auditors to cooperate (“Teamwork, Portia”) for the good of the cause. Then there’s the rankling matter of Princeton having been dropped to second place in one of those magazine ratings. “I want to go out on top!” the dean tells everyone. Portia advises a young, nebbishy colleague not to take the individual applicants’ chances so to heart, advice that will curdle ironically before the movie’s over.

She has devoted herself to her job and her silly-ass mate Richard (Michael Sheen, clever but underutilized). He lies in bed, reading ancient poetic chronicles in Old English (or was that Middle English?) and absently pats Portia on the head. They’ve never had children, by joint agreement, so when he announces abruptly that he’s leaving her for a witchy Virginia Woolf scholar who’s pregnant, the effect on Portia is devastating. And she’ll get no succor from her severely eccentric mother (Lily Tomlin), a fiercely, almost grotesquely independent feminist writer who got with child during a train ride and never even bothered to get the guy’s name.

By now, more complications have accumulated. There’s John (Paul Rudd), the didactic liberal do-gooder head of an alternative New England prep school dedicated to inculcating progressive ethical values and to questioning establishment ones. Portia only pays it a visit because she wants to score a few points in her unannounced quest for the dean’s job, but New Quest School’s skeptical student body isn’t fertile soil for her Princeton recruitment spiel. But there is Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), “the most brilliant student” John has come across. And for reasons the movie doesn’t bother to convey, the boy really wants to go to Princeton after he hears Portia’s presentation. The problem is, he’s a self-educated, working-class 17-year-old with a spotty, gap-ridden record, along with astronomical test scores. Too weird for Princeton?

This situation combines, a little mechanically, with Portia’s attraction to the obnoxiously high-minded John and her long-secret past for combustible consequences. Admission thus becomes a slightly unconventional roncom, and a once-over-lightly meditation on identity, family, careerism, and ethics. In other words, it gets a little less sharply amusing and somewhat more soft-focused and warm-hearted. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel of the same name was in no way as lighthearted and waspish as Paul Weitz’s movie often is. It didn’t have to navigate the tonal changes the film tries, with mildly inconsistent success, to handle.

Two things help tie it together: Weitz’s tight, smart, pacey direction and Fey’s performance. This is probably her best movie performance. She brings along a bit of Liz Lemon from TV’s 30 Rock, but her range and control here, her funny but fine-edged work, help sustain the movie over its more awkward passages. Admission doesn’t find its heart so much as lose heart. No one is going to mistake it for the product of such academic satirists as Mary McCarthy and Kingsley Amis, but Admission has a number of nice moments and the heartwarming stuff isn’t too obtrusive. Admission is funny and winning enough.

Watch the trailer for Admission

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