Screenplay by Karen Croner
Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd

With Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn and Michael Sheen
Released March 22, 2012
Distributed by Focus Features

Reviewed by William L. Gage

     I first became aware of this film when I saw an early trailer for it in the theater, which promoted it as a lighthearted romantic comedy starring Tina Fey as a college admissions officer and Paul Rudd as the headmaster of a high school, but which didn’t indicate that adoption was a major aspect of the plot. Television advertising for the film likewise never even hinted at the adoption subplot, so I next took notice of the film only when it recently entered the rotation on HBO and I read the plot summary: “A college admissions officer thinks a misfit applicant may be the son she gave up for adoption.” Well, now I was intrigued.
     Romantic comedies tend to be formulaic and are dependant for their success on the chemistry between the stars. Admission fails on both counts. The story has potential, but its execution is fatally flawed, and neither Fey nor Rudd is able to rise above the inherent limitations of the script.
     When first we meet Portia Nathan (Fey), she is a harried but competent Princeton admissions officer who is in a head-to-head competition with a rival co-worker, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), for the job of Dean of Admissions, a position being made available by the imminent retirement of its current occupant, Clarence (Wallace Shawn). At home, Portia is living with but not married to Mark (Michael Sheen), the Chair of the English Department who, unbeknownst to Portia, is about to end their relationship because he has impregnated Helen (Sonya Walger), a “Virginia Woolf scholar” from Cambridge who cannot understand the American college-application process (in England, “we just do tests. ... Grey matter, that’s what counts”), thus providing the opening for a romantic relationship between Portia and John Pressman (Rudd), who operates a newly established “developmental” high school near Keene, New Hampshire.
     The Princeton admissions officers’ duties are divided geographically, and Portia is responsible for reviewing applications from would-be students in New England (a plum position). Thus it is that she meets John when she visits his school on an annual recruitment tour. While there, she stays with her mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), who lives not far away, and with whom she has an at best strained relationship, which appears to have resulted from the failure of each to meet the other’s expectations over the years.
     The adoption subplot kicks in when John, following a dinner date with Portia, reveals that he believes, based upon his date and place of birth, that Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), the quirky but gifted “autodidact” whose application to Princeton he is championing, is the son she gave up for adoption when she was in college (Portia and John were classmates at Dartmouth and he became aware of her pregnancy through her roommate, who borrowed his car).
     After John provides her with a photocopy of the boy’s birth certificate, Portia becomes his advocate, as well, helping the obviously less-than-qualified applicant, to the extent that she can, to surmount the obstacles of the admissions process, including voting in favor of other admissions officers’ “pet” candidates in the hope that they will extend the same “courtesy” when Jeremiah’s application is considered (they don’t). Portia ultimately reveals their presumed relationship to Jeremiah, with unexpected results.
     The success of a romantic comedy hinges on the audience’s ability to root for the principal characters to come together in the end despite the obstacles. Unfortunately, it never seemed to me that either was particularly romantically interested in the other. The thing that actually brings them into close proximity (their respective professions) is, in itself, insufficient, and the thing that subsequently binds them (the belief that Jeremiah is the son she gave up for adoption) only serves to propel Portia towards the boy, not the man (not exactly the stuff of romantic comedy).
     Before it was a movie, Admission was a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who worked for a year as a guest “reader” in the Princeton Admission Office as research for the book. The film appears to have included all of the principal characters and plot points (significantly, the character of the pregnant teenager whom Portia’s mother hosts in the hope that she can persuade her to keep the child is omitted), but where the novel was a well-reviewed portrait of the college admissions process and a woman coming to terms with the choices she has made, the screenplay vainly tries only to milk the story for its comedic potential, with decidedly mixed results.

Published in the January 2014 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
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