Review: ‘Admission’ With Tina Fey & Paul Rudd A Low-Stakes Drama Mixed With Toothless Social Satire

Review: 'Admission' With Tina Fey & Paul Rudd A Low-Stakes Drama Mixed With Toothless Social Satire
Review: 'Admission' With Tina Fey & Paul Rudd Low-Stakes Drama Mixed With Toothless Social Satire

Some people don’t seem to realize that the type of stories being
told in film needs to change. Small-scale tales of middlebrow intimacy and
minor dramatic conflict used to have a home in the cinemas, where they would
play to audiences who didn’t have a surplus of entertainment options. Today,
the problem isn’t that these stories are no longer relevant commercially or
creatively — they still are — but that they lack the incisive filmmakers
necessary to guide them properly to the big screen. Case in point: Paul Weitz’s toothless, sleepy “Admission,” which portrays the topsy-turvy life of a Princeton
admissions officer who has to cope with widening standards and new methods of
evaluation in regards to new students.

Which, in and of itself, reads dry, but the same could be
said of Bennett Miller’s intriguing “Moneyball.” The newer ways to understand
success and greatness, essentially a sabermetric approach to evaluating
potential academic success, is ripe for universal drama about perception. The
fact that it lacks the sex appeal of professional sports suggests it’s more
suitable to a small independent filmmaker (with European financing, natch), but
such a film could yield rich dramatic fruit, particularly paired with a star
like Tina Fey.

It’s unfortunate that Fey instead is saddled with weak
attention-getting subplots not worthy of such analyses. Fey, a winning
presence, feels typecast as Portia, a childless fortysomething who has her
career in order but hides a personal life left in shambles. Her longtime
academic boyfriend (Michael Sheen, effectively making this “30 Rock
fan-fiction) has ended their ten-year relationship to pursue a more generically
attractive literary colleague, leaving Portia without attachments as the admission
season is rounding up.

Portia’s field work in evaluating an “alternative education
community” as a viable source for potential students yields not only a
potential suitor in the school‘s headmaster John (Paul Rudd) but also a student
who possibly might be the long-lost son that she gave up for adoption years ago, who is now applying for college. Her lukewarm chemistry with Rudd is a
surprising misfire; perhaps it’s because Rudd is straitjacketed in a role he
previously parodied in the underrated social satire “Wanderlust.” Even if this
film weren’t being compared to David Wain’s shaggy commune comedy, quips about
Rudd’s liberal do-gooderism and oatmeal-ish sense of whimsy would still fall
flat. Rudd is an accomplished actor, but can’t convey actual warmth with an
un-ironic smile. His skills lie in either the darkness of a dramatic situation
or a flippant sketch-comedy sarcasm that punctures the sanctimony of authority

Fey acquits herself simply by way of having to play a
reactive presence, which assisted her greatly during years as the straight
woman on “30 Rock.” That familiarity only contributes to the lack of compelling
dramatic conflict established in the film. Weitz has shown enough versatility
in his career to bungle several genres from parody (“American Dreamz”) to
fantasy (“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”), and he follows through
again with a film that keeps stopping short to present context-less gags. Weitz
hasn’t met a tableau he can’t cheapen with some failed slapstick, placing
characters in inorganic setups that inherently betray the plot. Fey’s
admissions officer is almost always overworked, and yet is frequently found
outside the office for the sake of a lazy one-liner about confronting anxious
would-be students or bumping into her ex. With a forced wink and an unmotivated
exit stage left, Weitz seems to believe “comedy” and “drama” are separate
ingredients in an over-processed meal to be arbitrarily mixed.

Much of this nonstarter humor extends to Fey’s would-be son Jeremiah
(Nat Wolff), a precocious young savant that mostly showcases his intelligence
with slack-jawed recitation of facts and statistics. When called upon to be a
joke, Jeremiah leans towards awkward ventriloquism, a routine destined to play
to stone faces in front of and beyond the fourth wall. She simultaneously
champions his dubious juvenile resume as she warms to him as a prospective son,
but as constituted, Portia barely seems invested in this wonderboy, the film’s
notions about her hidden maternal instincts playing second fiddle to her
endless professional exasperation. None of these issues clash in a natural
manner, as each is isolated by cheap storytelling obviousness. When your
character has difficult moral and emotional choices to make, don’t surround her
with one-dimensional threats like a scheming interoffice rival (Gloria Reuben).
It’s as if Weitz knows he’s got a corpse of a film on his hands — never trust a movie when it feels as though you can see the director clasping the defibrillator.

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