This new film pairing Tina Fey and the seemingly unaging Paul Rudd has come in for some fairly disappointing reviews since it was released in the States earlier this year, but I rather liked it. It certainly isn’t a spectacular example of the romance genre (terrain familiar to both lead actors), but its virtues are solid and it has a good supporting cast of characters to enliven proceedings.
As it happened, I saw this back to back with Stuck in Love, another film set amongst bookish intellectuals inhabiting the cynical north-east of the United States, and if it’s possible Admission is even less nuanced with its character arcs. Fey plays Portia, a cynical, uptight and childless middle-aged admissions clerk at Princeton University, while Rudd is John Pressman, a free-spirited progressive educationalist with an adopted family whose star student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) wants to go to Princeton. So far, so predictable, and in truth there’s little that shakes the viewer from that early assessment. Portia shelters herself from family commitments within her protective Ivy League enclave, while Pressman flits around the world engaging with developing communities to much the same end, so there’s little surprise in way their journey progresses. It’s never quite clear why Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton or whether this kind of elitist education is genuinely worthwhile, but it allows for some gentle comedy at the clash of cultures between the Ivy League and the liberal do-gooding of Pressman’s academy (which incidentally doesn’t seem to be at all academically rigorous in its methods).
Whatever its merits, it is worth noting that Admission is a comedy only in the broadest sense: there are few laugh-out-loud moments. In keeping with its pretentious milieu, the comedy in it is far more about wry smiles and occasional embarrassment such as at Portia’s ineptitude with the younger generation. That said, her mother Susannah is played by a wonderfully deadpan Lily Tomlin as an unreconstructed old-school feminist and brings a joie de vivre (not to mention some of the best outright jokes) to the film. Her presence also allows the film to embrace more configurations of happiness in life than some of the heteronormative married-with-children anxieties that Portia seems to be dealing with, as she wrestles with an apparent mid-life crisis in her attempts to nurture a parental bond with Jeremiah (and it is this drama which is really at the heart of the film). Luckily Admission never quite settles down to this path, and the central coupling suggests a resolution which does not entirely involve romantic clichés, almost refreshing in the context of this type of romantic enterprise.
As one who works in university administration, I don’t feel particularly convinced by its portrayal of the Princeton admissions office, though then again I don’t doubt that the Ivy League (or for that matter Oxbridge over this side of the pond) are quite different in this regard; certainly the assessment of students as candidates according to their whole personal history rather than just their academic results, seems like an odd focus. Still, the inter-office relationships are nicely sketched out (with another Clueless alumnus, Wallace Shawn, as the dean of admissions), and it’s good to see they’re not all heartless bureaucrats. Still, it’s unfortunate that Portia’s personal trajectory has to result in humiliation in her professional life.
For all that, the film is a pleasingly low-key romantic (sort-of-)comedy with likeable central performances. It probably seems like faint praise, but it is the kind of film that I would happily watch and probably enjoy even more on a long-haul flight, or when stuck at home in my sick bed. It has an unshowy and traditionalist spirit (it even ends with the words “The End”), and that is its own kind of virtue.
Director Paul Weitz; Writer Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz); Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 14 June 2013.