Make up your mind, Admission. Do you want to go to Princeton or not?
In this well-acted but narratively tortured dramedy from director Paul Weitz (American Dreamz, In Good Company), the Ivy League school is handled with what can only be called extreme ambivalence. The main character, Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), is an admissions officer at the prestigious university, and the first 10 minutes or so are spent establishing what a rare honor it is to be accepted as a student there. Things are laid on so thickly you begin to wonder if the entire production might have been funded by Princeton.
On a recruiting trip, however, Portia visits an experimental school run by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), where the tradition of elitism associated with Ivy League institutions is openly challenged by the students. One of them – a quietly brilliant boy named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) – later approaches Portia and tells her he’d actually like to apply to Princeton.
Partly because of strained plot revelations I’d rather not reveal, this becomes the driving force for the movie: will Jeremiah, a long shot given his academic history and lacking social skills, get in? Never mind that the narrative has gone to great pains to distance itself from the idea of Ivy League acceptance being some sort of personal validation (especially in its embrace of the countercultural Rudd character). Suddenly this is all we’re meant to care about.
If only these characters weren’t sent spinning on a narrative hamster wheel.
For awhile, I was content to let this fall by the wayside and be carried away by Admission’s notable charms. As in most of Weitz’s films, especially About a Boy, this is a story stuffed with wonderfully complex characters, brought to life by actors working at the top of their game. Fey and Rudd are both very good in largely dramatic parts, especially when their characters’ carefully cultivated intellectual identities begin to get stripped away. Although they’re brought to a level playing field via forced plot machinations, it’s a pleasure to watch this pair begrudgingly come to admire each other for who they are, not who they’re pretending to be.
To be honest, there’s hardly a wrong performance in the film – from Wolff as an unsure but eager young genius to Wallace Shawn as Princeton’s staunch dean of admissions to Michael Sheen as Portia’s pompous and buggy long-term boyfriend. And then there’s Lily Tomlin, a sight for sore eyes as Portia’s distant mother, Susannah, a defiant feminist who sees feelings of any kind as a weakness. Harsh, proud and with her usual comic precision, Tomlin makes Susannah ground zero for the gender politics that are also part of Admission’s concerns.
If only these characters weren’t sent spinning on a narrative hamster wheel. Admission is adapted by Karen Croner from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I haven’t read it, so I can only hope that the matters of plotting and motivation are better handled on the page. Onscreen, it feels as if the film is in a constant, desperate search for a way to keep its slim narrative moving forward. There are awkwardly introduced campus visits and parties and dances, all tangentially connected to Jeremiah’s application process (and strung together by that storytelling kiss of death: a wallpaper soundtrack).
By the climax, Portia’s entire character has been sacrificed to the picture’s flimsy plot device. As the admission process comes to a close, Portia resorts to manipulating coworkers, bribing professors and generally behaving in ways untrue to the woman we’ve come to know, all in an attempt to get Jeremiah into Princeton. At that point, all the strong characterization the movie had been developing was steamrolled by manufactured plotting, and Admission had become a story about which only Princeton could care.