There is a certain breed of comedy that gets by without actually being funny. You can watch them from start to finish without slapping yourself or changing the channel, and when it’s over you may not feel like your time was wasted, but you’d never recommend it to your friends. Admission is one of those comedies. It’s got funny actors and it never bores you, but I think I laughed only one time, and that one time was probably just a nervous titter because Lily Tomlin’s in a movie again. Admission is just too busy being likable to be funny, and too busy undercutting its own story to be very good.
Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan. Portia is a Princeton admissions officer. She, along with a handful of co-workers, decides who gets into one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This puts her in the crosshairs of every parent in the country, who want the best for their children, true, but also want to be validated as good parents. They pester Portia constantly, but there are rules to her position that must be strictly adhered to at all times in order to preserve the dignity of Princeton. Admission is about what it takes to make a rational, intelligent, highly principled person break all those rules, and I don’t particularly like her for it.
Fey is one of the most likable stars in the world, mind you, but Admission tests her abilities left and right. When Portia discovers through John, a school principal played by Paul Rudd, that one of this year’s Princeton applicants is actually her own son, given up for adoption 18 years ago, she tries to bend the rules a little bit to help him out. It’s an understandable urge, and of course heavy overcompensation for all the years in which she abandoned her child. It doesn’t help that her longtime boyfriend Michael Shannon has only just dumped her, and that her own mother, Lily Tomlin, is a lifelong feminist who considers maternal instincts an arbitrary, sexist shackle. She’s looking for someone to belong to and someone to take care of. Her motivations are reasonable, so we should – in theory – accept her actions over the course of Admission as dramatically sound, and one would hope also very funny. But we don’t, because they’re not.
Admission sets up Portia to learn a valuable lesson, or at least view the other side of a reasonable argument. She sees the doting, overzealous parents of Princeton hopefuls as pests, incapable of viewing the situation objectively. It’s the best school in the world, so only a small percentage of the applicants can get in, and only the best are chosen. Her own son, Jeremiah, played by Nat Wolff, is clearly a genius if you talk to him, but his grades are crap and he doesn’t have any extra-curricular activities. (Well, he has one, but it’s a joke.) On paper, he’s not Princeton material. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here about the fallibility of the American educational system, which values test scores over the many qualities that actually make people a valuable member of society. Admission doesn’t bother with that lesson. It also doesn’t do much with the fairly obvious point that Portia’s position has been reversed, and that she is now the very kind of parent she once found so unsympathetic and annoying.
Instead, Admission wallows in awkward social interactions between Portia and Jeremiah, and Fey’s decent but unremarkable chemistry with Paul Rudd, and Rudd’s clichéd relationship with his own adopted son, played by Travaris Spears. Dad wants to move, the son doesn’t want to. You’ve seen it before, and it doesn’t go anywhere interesting, although Spears is a charming kid. Lily Tomlin steals a few scenes as Fey’s diehard feminist mother, but there’s a cruelty to her performance that’s hard to ignore. She should be a funny character, but Admission takes itself a little too seriously, playing its broad comedic concepts for serious drama. The comedy doesn’t seem very funny when real emotional damage is inflicted, and the drama doesn’t work when the set-ups are so hard to justify in a real world context.
Over the course of time, Portia goes from bending the rules to breaking them left and right in an effort to get Jeremiah into Princeton and – obviously – validate herself as a good parent. But the lengths to which she goes are beyond unscrupulous. I’m don’t know if it’s a criminal offense to lie a kid’s way into Ivy League schools, but it’s sure as hell nothing to be proud of, even though Admission seems to think it is. It’s as if abandoning all of Portia’s very reasonable principles is a victory, and not the kind of moral devolution that would be treated with scorn in real life, and with no small amount of judgment in a more reasonable film.
If Admission had bothered to be broad enough, portraying Princeton as a cartoonishly snooty institution in need of its comeuppance, we could have let it slide. But it sure seems like a nice place to work and go to school. Its admissions standards are ridiculously high, but they’re not jerks about it. It’s just their jobs. Besides, it’s not like Jeremiah won’t have any opportunities to succeed. There are other colleges out there, obviously, but even then, wasn’t the point that academic success doesn’t necessarily equate to real world triumph? If Jeremiah is worth defending despite his crap grades in high school, isn’t he just as worthy if he doesn’t get into Princeton? Has Portia Nathan learned nothing, or has she just learned that putting family ahead of ethical behavior is a good thing?
Either way, Admission fails to live up to its potential, and although the performances are fine, those performances are in service of an unfunny comedy and a troubling drama all at the same time. I was able to watch it from beginning to end, and my life isn’t much worse for the trouble, but I got absolutely nothing out of the experience, and I don’t recommend it to my friends. Or to anyone else for that matter.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.