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Movie Review: Admission

March 22, 2013

Despite having a poster that looks as dangerously banal as The Switch, Admission is so charming that it doesn’t need many jokes. The star, of course, is one of the most charming people working today, Tina Fey, who really should play Dorothy Parker some time.

Here, however, she’s Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, spending her days combing over thousands of applications and trimming her banzai tree. It’s a content life, though occasionally it puts her in contact with prospective students, at least those she’s not officially scheduled to speak to during one of her recruiting trips — in the beginning scene for example, she slips out of her office and right into a tour group. “They were supposed to be out of here ten minutes ago!” she scolds the guide. There is a secret to getting in, we’re assured, but Portia isn’t quite ready to share it with the audience yet. Oh to wield such power, and have Wallace Shawn as a boss.

She’s contacted by John Pressman, dean of an unorthodox high school named “New Quest,” where the kids learn how to milk and birth cows, yet seem unusually well read. John wants to get one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), into Princeton, first because he’s pretty bright, and second because, well, it’s just far enough in that revealing why could be a spoiler. And third because John has a crush on Portia and apparently has ever since they attended Dartmouth together.

That’s about the first half hour, and it’s also the funniest part of the movie. Once the story gets going, the gags taper off. But that’s not really a problem for the film, as the characters are all likeable, even Portia’s acerbic mom Susannah (Lily Tomlin) and on-again-off-again boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) — and if you’re a fan of 30 Rock, you already know where their relationship is headed.

There really isn’t much to add outside of a summary. It’s just one of those comedies that’s fine. Not ambitious, not laugh-out-loud funny, not groundbreaking in any way, and not anything you’d say much about other than, “Yeah, I saw that; it’s pretty good.”

I like Tina Fey immensely, and she’s able to eschew every chance at heavy-handed pretension — even when she has to give an impassioned speech, but either this film doesn’t offer her much of a challenge or she handles it so effortlessly that I didn’t notice. I think it’s the former, because one of the major conflicts is relieved so quickly that it’s practically an afterthought. Similarly, the secondary characters have little to do — Rudd, Tomlin, Sheen, Gloria Reuben as Portia’s arch-nemesis, don’t stand out but aren’t wasted either. They’re all just…there. Shawn is a bright spot, but is he never not?

Admission isn’t a film that should have been more, because that extra bit would have made it more serious and duller. And if it were nonstop whackiness, that wouldn’t have fit with the plot. It’s a GRANDMA’S® Homestyle Chocolate Chip Cookie — the product of a well-greased machine that satisfies and doesn’t leave you hungry; the obvious double meaning of the title may as well be the “Improved Recipe” label. This is exactly the kind of film you’d expect in March: it doesn’t make any missteps, but then that’s hard to do when you’re walking a straight line.

Rating: 3/5

Admission is rated PG-13. Directed by Paul Weitx. Written by Karen Croner. Based on Admission by Jean Hariff Korelitz. Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Michael Sheen, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Gloria Reuben, and Travaris Spears.


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