Making the Grade, by Sarah Brinks
Admission is a film that deserves a new marketing label: Smart Romantic Comedy. Admission is a funny movie with many laugh out-loud moments but it also a movie about the meaning of family and the complexity of the Ivy League admissions process. When I say “Smart Romantic Comedy” I mean the funny moments in the film as also blissfully prat-fall free, Tina Fey never has to resort to mugging to the camera, nor does the film go for cheap/easy laughs. There are a surprising amount of tears shed in a movie that was marketed as a “Tina Fey romantic comedy”. However, I think the film is better served by having a message and characters who seem genuine and real.
Tina Fey plays the buttoned up Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan. Portia follows the rules and visits the schools in her territory of the Northeast searching for the best and brightest seniors to make up Princeton’s graduating class of 2016. Along the way she stops at a new school run by Paul Rudd as John Pressman. John’s school is an alternative school set on a working farm and offering classes like ‘Third World Aid’ and ‘Robotics’. At the New Quest School Portia meets Jeremiah, a bright, but odd student who interested in going to Princeton. Jeremiah was adopted and John tells Portia he thinks that she is Jeremiah’s mother. Portia spends time with Jeremiah and begins to root for him to get into Princeton. Meanwhile Portia has been left by her live in boyfriend Mark of ten years played by Michael Sheen. Portia is also working through a lot of issues she has with her feminist mother played delightfully by Lily Tomlin.
Though the film is interesting and well written, it is however predictable and not very challenging. What elevates Admission above other romantic comedies is the cast. Each member of the cast brings a realness to their character that helps keep the film from ever veering off into “wacky” territory. The most absurd moment of film and the only moment that rings as a little gimmicky is when John, Portia, and Jeremiah have to help a cow give birth at the New Quest School. Tomlin as Susannah Portia’s bike riding, gun toting, breast cancer surviving mother is a delight. Tomlin has shown great comedic skills over her long career and Admission is no exception, she brings both levity and heart to the film. Nat Wolff as Jeremiah is also a delight. I had never seen Wolff before but he did an excellent job making Jeremiah both odd and loveable. You root for him as much as Portia does by the end. Fey as Portia is great. I have always been a fan of Fey and Admission only strengthened my admiration. Fey found a balance between being a character who has be straight-laced for her career but is also just a likeable person who is good at her job and maybe has suffered socially because of her kooky upbringing and her commitment to following the rules. She and Rudd had good chemistry on screen. Rudd plays a do-gooder who travels the world helping people, has an adopted son from Senegal, and is helping an good kid get into college. Even though that makes him sound like someone who is nauseatingly too good to be true, he is a flawed person. You see that he does all those things to over compensate for his privileged up-ringing and he can’t commit to any one project for long. The one piece of casting that is a little weak is Michael Sheen as Mark. Mark leaves Portia early in the film but she keeps running into him and his now pregnant girlfriend around campus. Sheen is fine but has little to nothing to do and given his acting skills seems wasted in the film.
As I mentioned before the film is played as real as possible which buys it a little latitude to make some creative choices. Throughout the film when Portia is reading applications and at the end when the admissions team meets to make the final choices there are actors in the room playing the applicants. Only Portia can see them and they are not hallucinations, they are just her vision of what the applicant looks and sounds like. This works in the films favor in several ways. It shows that Portia does see them as people not just names in a file. In a few scenes it helps to move the plot forward and give you an insight into Portia’s plan for Jeremiah. It also adds comedy and stakes to several scenes. I haven’t read the novel Admission was based on, so I don’t know if I can give sole credit for that choice to the director, but I will give him credit for making it work in the film. The director Paul Weitz has made some films I’ve really liked in the past and Admission just got added to the list.
Admission is a fun movie that also has something to say. Fey proves herself to be a capable leading lady surrounded by a cast of excellent actors who heighten the film from being good to great. I don’t think Admission will be the best movie of the year or the best comedy of the year but it is a fun time at the movies and well worth seeing.