Though smarter than your average dramedy, Paul Weitz’s forced “Admission” faces some major identity issues. Tina Fey plays a discombobulated Princeton admissions officer who must confront the limits of her morals when she learns that a potential Princeton applicant might be the son she gave up for adoption. What appears on paper to be an ideal three-dimensional, morally complex role for the quick-witted comedienne backfires in practice, relying on Fey to be funny in a movie that works better serious. Despite offering consolation to the world’s many Ivy League rejects that the gatekeepers sometimes make mistakes, low entrance levels await.
Clearly, what Weitz wanted was to recapture some of Fey’s “Baby Mama” mojo (it earned a surprise $60 million, after all), relying on the actress to bring the same vulnerable uncertainty to another harried working-woman role. But that film was conceived as a traditional laffer, whereas “Admission” is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s more nuanced novel, in which Fey’s seemingly straightlaced character is thrown for a loop by a highly unusual applicant.
While the book treats this wrinkle as its big surprise, the more plot-driven adaptation serves it up as a central concept, positioning Fey’s Portia Nathan as an increasingly screwball character struggling (and mostly failing) to maintain her professional ethics amid a messy personal crisis. Through a series of clunky, on-the-nose character development scenes, the pic establishes Portia’s life — or, more accurately, her current state of denial: She’s fallen into a predictable routine with her tweedy lit-professor b.f. (Michael Sheen), her fastidiously clean workspace and her general intolerance of kids.
Instead of indulging auds’ natural curiosity with a look inside the closed-door world of college admissions, the pic leaves Fey and her co-stars to play dress-up in a wood-paneled office where Wallace Shawn amiably poses as the dean of admissions and everybody carries around orange folders like so many hyper-efficient Oompa Loompas.
The impression essentially favors Princeton as it reveals the fair, yet relatively inflexible process by which Portia and rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben) evaluate high school seniors’ essays and extracurriculars. Each folder conjures a fresh, optimistic-looking teen at the edge of the reader’s desk, the majority of whom then plummet through an invisible trapdoor after failing to meet her high threshold.
With Portia and Corinne competing for a promotion, Portia throws herself into her usual visits to prospective students, giving the same canned speech at every stop until she arrives at New Quest, a newly accredited — and highly experimental — school overseen by fellow Dartmouth grad John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Implausibly, John remembers the day and hour Portia gave her baby up for adoption and has somehow managed to match it to his star pupil, a freakishly smart but terribly awkward teen named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff).
But his timing in revealing the information couldn’t be worse: Not only is this a sensitive time at work, but Portia’s b.f. is searching for an opportunity to break things off and her long-frazzled relationship with her mother (Lily Tomlin) is coming to a boil, all of which drives Portia to behave as only movie characters do, sobbing, smooching and puking at the most inopportune moments.
Other New Quest students question the value of what they see as the sexist, racist, homophobic institution Portia represents, but Jeremiah wants to attend Princeton. Problem is, he lacks the grades to get in. Watching the final admissions process, one wants to believe the officers become this invested in everyone they consider. And yet Portia goes to extremes to boost Jeremiah’s chances, manipulating co-workers and even breaking in to alter his file.
The comedy feels forced as Fey works overtime to insert unnecessary zingers at the tail of every scene. If the cast weren’t so endearing, her actions could easily sour an audience on the whole experience, and “Admission” digs itself a hole only an ensemble this appealing can escape. Tomlin in particular enlivens her limited screentime as an irrepressible free spirit — a woman who truly understands the meaning of acceptance.