Admission: Grating on a Curve

The rom-com fails as romance and comedy, but Tina Fey gives it the old college try

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David Lee / Focus Features

Tina Fey may be our most reluctant movie star. That smirk of hers always suggests a joke is in the offing, and if her work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock have taught us anything, it is that the joke will usually kill. But when Fey is trying to convey serious emotions, as occasionally demanded by her role as beleaguered Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan in the quasi-comedy Admission, the smirk hovers — but only barely. Whether it’s in a necking scene with co-star Paul Rudd or a contemplative moment about the child Portia gave up for adoption 18 years earlier, there’s this sense that Fey might at any moment break the fourth wall, turn toward the audience and say, “Me doing sexy and somber. I know. Right?”

As an audience, we’ve made it clear that we love and admire Fey. She may not have always looked like a movie star, but she does now. Perhaps not the way Naomi Watts looks like a star, but Hollywood has plenty of history with women who have sharp, strong features: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep — the list goes on. Yet Fey remains a smart performer with a limited (if still untapped) range. In non-comedic scenes on the big screen, she conveys insecurity. But the truth is, she’s so appealing that I didn’t mind sitting through Admission, another formulaic spin on Hollywood’s 21st century discovery, the mom-rom-com, with its disagreeable underlying messages about women, careers and motherhood.

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Sex scenes and somber moments don’t exactly dominate Admission. In adapting the source material, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s much more thoughtful 2009 novel, director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) and screenwriter Karen Croner (One True Thing) chose to play up the comic aspects of Portia’s story. Fey doesn’t have that much to do in the way of dramatic acting, although when she does, she makes even kissing Rudd seem like a task. There’s an eager, forced pep here, like you might see in an essay accompanying an application to a prestigious school like Princeton.

When Portia is introduced, she’s living an unencumbered, intentionally childless life with her English-professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen, who played one of Liz Lemon’s jerky boyfriends on 30 Rock). Portia has been “leaning in” for ages and is now competing against a colleague (Gloria Reuben) to replace the retiring head of admissions (Wallace Shawn). She gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), the director of an alternative school in New Hampshire and a former classmate from Dartmouth whom she doesn’t remember. He’s got a high school senior he thinks she has to meet: Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a self-proclaimed autodidact with an abysmal GPA.

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The first of two radical departures that Croner’s screenplay takes from Korelitz’s book is to eliminate Portia’s mounting belief that Jeremiah, who was adopted as an infant, is her son and instead have John confront Portia with his theory that Jeremiah is that child. (She’d thought that the secret of her pregnancy was safe with her college roommate.) His detective work is invasive and creepy. “You don’t just barrel into people’s lives like this,” Portia says after she has recovered enough to speak. “This is bad form.” It’s also wildly inappropriate; Portia’s job requires her to be objective, and John, in a very pushy way, is asking her to toss her professionalism out the window. He wants Portia to usher Jeremiah through the admissions process and be his second mom.

I’m not giving away anything about the plot (assuming you’ve seen the trailer), but Korelitz’s handling of the Jeremiah mystery was far more graceful and plausible; in the book, John’s only goal is for Jeremiah to get a good education. Maybe this tacked-on plotline explains why this is the first time I’ve ever found Rudd unpleasantly smarmy. Nor does his passion for getting Jeremiah into Princeton make any sense. Then again, a lot of things about the movie don’t make sense: though the admissions process begins in the fall and continues through the spring, on the East Coast of Weitz’s imagination, the weather never changes and no one ever complains, during their frequent trips, about the four-hour-plus drive from Princeton to New Hampshire. 

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Bothersome logistics aside, what particularly doesn’t sit well with me is the way the movie strips a strong character of her agency and turns her into a caricature of a needy helicopter parent, albeit one hidden in the shadows. Believing John is right about Jeremiah, Portia becomes obsessively moony about him. In place of the usual rom-com montage of a couple falling in love, Weitz shows Portia in a montage in which she shops for books about teenagers and tries to make friends with other moms, an about-face from her antipathy for the maternal (which stems from her own mother, a parody of a feminist played uncomfortably by Lily Tomlin). The underlying message in this transition from book to movie: there’s something wrong with a female character who doesn’t want children. (The screenwriter’s task: creating comedy in an ambitious woman who capitulates to motherhood.)

Even Portia’s heartbreak at the hands of Sheen’s wimpy character — he leaves her for a colleague she calls “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar” — is played mostly for punishing laughs. Every time she runs into her old partner, she’s in some humiliating position, like vomiting on a dorm lawn. While Admission remains the story of a woman who comes to question her past choices and jeopardize her career, the movie version is lighter, fluffier and dramatically inert. I’ll refrain from saying anything about the twist at the end, the other radical departure from Korelitz’s novel, except that it feels mean and strange, as though another trick has been played on poor Portia. If this is, as I suspect, a result of tailoring the material to Fey’s known talents, I wish the filmmakers, and the star herself, had had more faith in her capabilities.