starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn
screenplay: Karen Croner
directed by: Paul Weitz
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material
Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s popular novel of the same name, Admission tells the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a Princeton admissions officer whose personal and professional lives collide when she meets a prospective applicant and his enthusiastic teacher at an alternative high school in rural New Hampshire. Korelitz really did work part-time reading applications at Princeton, so the scenes of the cut-throat applicant file review and admission committee decision-making process (the school typically accepts just over 1,000 applicants out of the 20,000-plus received) are no doubt close to the real thing, especially considering Princeton gave the go-ahead for its name and image to be used.
Portia is portrayed as extremely dedicated to her job, having worked at the office for 16 years; she is now senior enough to be considered as a replacement for Clarence, the soon-to-retire Dean of Admissions (the inimitable Wallace Shawn). Unfortunately, she has an equally dedicated and intense colleague, Corrinne (Gloria Reuben), who also has her eye on the Dean’s job. Adding to that strain, the Dean announces that in the latest U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges ranking, Princeton has slipped from the coveted number one spot to number two, meaning the pressure is on the admissions staff to recruit a stellar new class of the best and brightest.
And, on top of that, Portia’s live in boyfriend of ten years (‘friend’ being the operative word here – he treats Portia more like a dog than a lover, giving her a friendly pat on the head instead of a kiss), English professor Mark (Michael Sheen), announces at a stuffy English department party in their own home, no less, that he is leaving her for Helen, an insufferable Virginia Woolf scholar who just happens to pregnant with his twins, even though Portia had thought that, he, like she, never wanted children.
In an attempt to distract herself from this personal upheaval (the various coincidental ways she keeps running into Mark and Helen make up some of the film’s funniest moments), Portia throws herself into finding the edge and passion that Princeton needs in its next class of students so as to reclaim its number one status and potentially earn her the Dean’s position.
As part of this mission, she accepts an invitation from the dogged teacher and single father John Pressman (Paul Rudd) to check out the New Quest School, the polar opposite of the many highly structured prep schools that typically feed into Ivy League colleges. At Quest, the students help deliver calves, stare at Portia blankly when she asks them to take out pens to take notes, and are overtly hostile during her presentation, attacking Princeton for being elitist, and actively debating whether college is even necessary.
In spite of this reception, John convinces Portia to meet one of his prized pupils, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), the adopted son of hard-working convenience store owners, a self-described autodidact who, despite his history of bad grades and suspensions, has been reading voraciously since he could walk, has passed eight advanced placement courses without taking a single AP class and, as John tells Portia, has a love of learning for learning’s sake, something John thinks is missing from most of Princeton’s typical overachieving, straight A-earning, success-driven applicants.
John has an alternative motive for introducing Portia to Jeremiah, however; based on some digging and on having known Portia’s college roommate, John is convinced that Jeremiah is the son that Portia had in college and gave up for adoption.
The rest of the film examines how Portia’s deepening relationship with both John (as well as his precocious adopted son, Nelson) and Jeremiah affects her decision-making process in terms of both her job and her struggle to come to terms with her past, including her own birth. In a stroke of brilliant casting, Lily Tomlin plays Portia’s mother, Susannah, a single mother who has a romantic story about Portia’s conception (involving a train ride and the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay). Susannah is a fiercely independent feminist scholar (she has a tattoo of Bella Abzug on her bicep) who wants her daughter to call her by her first name, builds her own bicycles, wants her pet dogs to hunt for their own food, and comes outside with an armed shotgun when she hears Portia having an argument with John. Portia clearly has residual issues with her upbringing that surface as she reflects on her own choice of giving up a child for adoption almost 18 years earlier.
With these conflicts in place, then, the film deftly explores the nature versus nurture debate through the lens of not just adoption, but also through the legitimacy and fairness of the college admissions process. What are the far-reaching effects, the film asks us, of reducing a teenager’s academics, family history, socio-economic background, and extracurricular opportunities (or lack thereof) into a single letter-sized file?
Karen Croner’s screenplay is smart and funny even as it examines these deeper issues, though, and the film benefits a great deal from terrific casting. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd have tangible chemistry, and both seem like real people you could have as friends or co-workers; you want to spend time with them. Fey shows she is capable of delivering more than pure comedy, turning in a performance of emotional depth and power (watch for a scene where she has a wrenching confrontation with her mother) that proves her dramatic acting chops. And Rudd is in his element as an earnest teacher, whose idealism and commitment to his son and students mask an undercurrent of sadness and longing stemming from his own upbringing.
If you can’t manage to see Admission in the theater, wait for the DVD, and then pair it with Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor’s similarly toned film about collegiate life from last year for a fun double bill. You’ll be able to relive the angst and joys of your college years just by hitting “play.”
Admission opens in Bay Area theaters today.