Andy Bockelman: “Admission” has Ivy League ambitions with state school payout
March 28, 2013
"Admission," rated PG-13
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Run time: 117 minutes
Starring:Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Michael Sheen and Lily Tomlin
Steamboat Springs — It used to be that straight A's, varsity achievements and a good attitude guaranteed a high school senior a place at a prestigious college. Nowadays, even the valedictorian has to fight tooth and nail to get into his or her safety school. Still, as "Admission" proves, there's something to be said for high standards.
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As an admissions officer for Princeton University, Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is responsible for reviewing thousands of applications from hopeful students, only a few of whom will be accepted into the institution of higher learning.
Part of this process is a regular bombardment of appeals from parents and counselors hoping to get their teens a leg up on the competition, so when Portia's former classmate John (Paul Rudd) approaches her about the most promising and unorthodox student (Nat Wolff) at his experimental school, she assumes the meeting will be no different from the usual round of bribery and begging. However, she's in for a shock when John informs her the boy is likely the child she gave up for adoption during her own time in college.
Even if she's in danger of getting typecast, Fey never can go wrong playing the part of the neurotic career woman, but while her roles in "Baby Mama" and "30 Rock" were strictly for laughs, Portia is a bit more dramatic fare. Besides her already-stressful job, there's the fact that the secret she's never been able to forget finally has caught up to her.
The minimal relationships she has when she's not on the road meeting with prospective students are obviously no help. It's a toss-up who's the least pleasant person in her life — the boyfriend (Michael Sheen) who inadvertently treats her like a dog, the boss (Wallace Shawn) who keeps dangling a promotion over her head or the aggressively feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) who requests that she not call her "mom."
Rudd likewise plays his usual nice guy, this time a progressive thinker, global activist and principal of an alternative school, who finds himself drawn to a woman who champions exactly the kind of traditional education he decries, perhaps mostly because his adopted son (Travaris Spears) likes her so much. Nickelodeon kid Wolff is good though remains largely in the background as decidedly offbeat Jeremiah, whose abysmal grades are offset by near-flawless test scores and a knack for learning in his own way.
Let's face it, a guy who styles his ventriloquist dummy after philosopher René Descartes is special to say the least. What mother wouldn't be proud?
Portia's worries about how to make it up to the kid she abandoned in infancy potentially make for a storyline rife with emotion, but the predominant sentiment of Karen Croner's screenplay — adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2009 novel — is to keep a stiff upper lip at all times. It is the Ivy League, after all.
Director Paul Weitz draws on the same kind of bittersweet atmosphere he brought us in "Being Flynn" and "About a Boy," bringing out the humor of a woman who evaluates year after year of incoming freshmen only to have to analyze herself and where she's at in her own life. Fey and Rudd make the leads likable, but there's not much depth to straight-laced Portia or bend-the-rules do-gooder John, at least not anything that isn't immediately spoken aloud by either of them.
A more intriguing aspect of this story is the procedure that goes on behind closed doors of the Princeton admission office, a place where 99 percent of those applying have no chance of wearing the orange and black come the fall semester. The tone regarding whether race, gender, social status and other factors work for or against applicants isn't exactly critical, but it does raise the question of the existence of fairness in a time when every high school graduate is encouraged, if not forced, to pursue secondary education only to find there's not room for everyone.
Even if the final report card for "Admission" isn't exactly glowing, it does get you to think, and that's never a bad thing whether you're studying at a junior college or the cream of the crop in scholastic excellence. Maybe if the story aimed a little higher in its setting, it might make all the difference.
What’s the matter? Denied by Harvard and wait-listed by Yale? Tsk, tsk. Should've had more extra curriculars on your resume.
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.
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