The genre of witty rom-coms is almost extinct in present-day Hollywood. The 1990s were a prolific time for the genre with films like As Good As It Gets, You’ve Got Mail, and Something’s Gotta Give. However, in the new millennium, these films have been few and far between. Up in The Air (2009) comes to mind, but it’s much too serious to qualify. But Admission belongs to this genre, and it was refreshing to see such a film once again on the big screen.
Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University. As gatekeepers to the hallowed portals of Princeton, she and her colleagues spend the film deliberating admissions for the Class of 2016. Portia has the arduous task of sifting through hundreds of applications, a task that worsens when she realizes she might be evaluating the application of her biological son, whom she gave up for adoption as a college student. She is torn between helping her biological son gain admittance and remaining professional and objective at the same time. The fact that she becomes romantically involved with said boy’s high school teacher, John (Paul Rudd), does not make the task easier.
As someone who was a college applicant not too long ago, several moments in the film held a real sense of déjà vu for me. The scenes that show the absurd paranoia of students and parents touring Princeton are hilarious but eerily familiar and a bit unsettling. The question everyone wants answered is, “What is the secret to getting in?” Portia gives a variety of answers to the eager students, each time saying, “You’ll want to get out your pens out for this one.” The truth revealed in the film is that even as the committee makes its decisions, the officers themselves are not sure of the answer. As the film cleverly points out—albeit through obvious exaggeration—admissions are sometimes a matter of an officer’s personal biases or prejudices, and making an objective decision is not as easy as it seems.
A note to the loyal fans of Fey, who were saddened by the end of 30 Rock: You will not be disappointed. Fey plays the uptight and predictable admissions officer with flair. Her character’s quirks include a pathological need to constantly clean her computer with a compressed gas cleaner and to repeatedly trim the bonsai plant on her desk. Needless to say, Fey also shows excellent comic timing in the role and interestingly isolates some peculiarities that seemed especially fitting for an admissions officer at a high-status university.
Fey’s character, Portia, is stuck in her ideal world: a stable job and a long-term relationship with Mark, a dry English professor at Princeton. She describes her state as “happy, happy, so happy,” as if to convince herself of her contentedness. As the film progresses, however, Portia begins to realize how mundane her life is, especially after a chance meeting with John on one of her high school visits.
Rudd plays John Pressman, the foil to Fey’s character: an eccentric single father who teaches in a school that is anything but conventional. He regularly takes off on whims to go on missions to third-world countries, constructing organic irrigation and water purification systems. Fey’s character aptly described him as “just this single dad, traveling the world with his little kid, doing good.” Playing such an eccentric character convincingly is not an easy task, and Rudd does a good job of bringing life and humor to his character. It helps, of course, that Rudd has been the crush of many a girl since he first appeared as a character in Friends.
Together, the duo drives the film with their great chemistry. They have some hilarious scenes together, and the wit and repartee in their dialogue is enjoyable to watch. The couple steer clear of the typical chick-flick romance genre by not playing coy about their romance and handling the baggage that they bring to their relationship—Portia’s recent break-up and John’s nomadic lifestyle—with maturity.
It is also noteworthy to mention the supporting cast of characters. Those who come to mind are Portia’s erudite, literary partner, Mark, and Susannah, Portia’s overtly feminist mother. The relationship between Portia and Mark is reduced to that of a master and pet, which is especially suiting since Mark often pets Portia’s head, calling her loyal and faithful. Susannah doesn’t hesitate to spring to the defense of her daughter, even armed with a hunting rifle when she believes Rudd’s character is making an inappropriate pass at Portia.
Although the actors and the director carry the film as far as it could go, Admission fails in its botchy writing. The script has some witty dialogue, but the story itself is lacking in purpose. It has an interesting premise that should have been explored further. Perhaps the script could have addressed more closely the ethical dilemma of Portia’s position or her relationship with her biological son. Yet, despite some short moments that briefly touch on these ideas, the script fell flat on its face. At the end of the film, Portia’s decisions and actions seem unreal, even absurd, because the script does not give the audience enough reasoning for them.
Despite my criticisms, the film is an entertaining watch, especially for a college student who went through the process not too long ago. Recent survivors of the college search will enjoy seeing the absurdities and maniacal obsessions of pushy parents and eager students and, perhaps, identify with some of them. And as for the loyal fans of 30 Rock—check out Admission, if only to satisfy your Tina Fey craving.