Some movies are serious comedies. Others are dramas that happen to be quite funny. Then there's Admission, which can't make up its mind on which it is and is subsequently neither.
At Admission's center is Tina Fey, who's stretching beyond playing the straight man and being the butt of every other character's jokes (as often was the case on 30 Rock). She plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, who's contacted by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a teacher at an elite but very hippie-friendly-type school in Keane, NH.
Pressman has a senior in his class who has terrible grades, but aced the SAT and all the AP exams (without taking AP courses). He's also a heavy reader, and self-taught about most things.
And he's adopted. And his birth date happens to be an important date to Portia. And Pressman puts two and two together.
That sounds like a spoiler (it's not), but it's really a McGuffin—a plot device used to kick the story into action. Because once Portia learns about the senior, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), she begins to question everything in her life.
Why, for example, has she stayed at the same job for 16 years? Why is her job in education? Why does she stay with the same boyfriend for a decade when there's clearly no passion between them? Why is her mother (a welcome Lily Tomlin) such a jerk to her? Why is she afraid of personal risk?
WHY? THE FILMMAKERS ASK US! They demand that we care! And it's hard to care. Director Paul Weitz (half the team that directed American Pie and the whole team that directed the surprisingly touching In Good Company and the better-than-it-should-have-been Being Flynn) gets stuck between the comedy (Portia gets roped into delivering a calf at the hippie school with John and Jeremiah) and the drama (the whole what's-best-for-our-kids motif that's underneath all this poppycock).
None of these shifts in tone would be so difficult to swallow if they weren't so broad, and didn't come across as obvious time-fillers or the plot's gears creakily turning. Paul Rudd downplays most of the comedy in a way that makes it seem he's compensating for the screenplay's straight-up silly turns.
Still, the movie gets some things right. Portia's initial reaction to meeting Jeremiah and learning, maybe, who he is, feels authentic. So does her reaction after she bumps into him during a Princeton tour.
But what feels inauthentic is a lot of everything else. For example, do the filmmakers know how far apart Princeton, NJ, and Keane, NH, are? Do the filmmakers realize that Lily Tomlin is really funny, and here, most of the time, is wasted in the role of bitter hippie? Is there any way the ventriloquism show would actually produce the effect it does in the end?
Sure, seeing those descriptions of scenes railroaded next to each other doesn't make much sense. Neither does much of Admission. At least the movie proves that Tina Fey can carry a picture (even it's not so good), and Paul Rudd can rein it in, which he hasn't done often since The Object of My Affection and The Shape of Things.
But there are lots of things to overcome, including the look of the movie. Cinematographer Declan Quinn has made some great-looking films. What happened here? Everything is flat and gray, and many of the shots are framed in the dullest way possible.
At least Wallace Shawn, as Portia's boss, livens up his scenes. And Travaris Spears, as Rudd's son, has some good moments that are kid-like without being movie-kid-like. On the whole, though, Admission's studio should have denied it like so many kids Princeton turns away.
Directed by Paul Weitz
With Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Wallace Shawn
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14