★ / ★★★★
Portia (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer in Princeton University. After having been invited by a high school teacher, John (Paul Rudd), to stop by and give some information about the university, possibly inspiring those who wish to apply during her talk, she is told by John that he has found her biological son, the child she gave up for adoption when she was an undergraduate in Dartmouth. His name is Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) and he happens to be interested in attending Princeton.
Here is a film that should have been approached with satirical edge. Instead, “Admission,” based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and adopted to the screen by Karen Croner, ends up as a would-be comedy-drama with scenes that move so slowly and almost devoid of humor. Its many subplots are not entertaining. They merely serve as padding for what should have been the focus of the picture: how it is like to be an admission officer in one of the most respected universities in America, an institution that receives over twenty-thousand applications annually and only accepts just about a thousand and two hundred.
Like a high school student that spreads himself too thin, the picture’s strategy involves giving us too many characters at once, introducing them and their problems superficially, and hoping that somehow parading them around will pass as character development. In one scene, Portia is having issues with her mother (Lily Tomlin) not putting in enough effort so they can both have a so-called healthier mother-daughter relationship. The next scene is about something else completely, with Portia competing against her co-worker (Gloria Reuben) for a promotion because the dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn) has announced his retirement. It is like cotton candy: it looks like a lot to bite into on the outside but when you get into it, there is not much there.
The attempt at romantic comedy is lifeless. Sure, Fey and Rudd are charming as usual. The sort-of date between Portia and John has a sweetness to it, but the performers are not given much to work with. Words are uttered but they are inconsequential. The date is tolerable only because of the awkward smiles and the twinkle in the eyes of the actors. At least they are getting paid to endure bad material. What about us?
In addition, the drama is not convincing. Would it have been too much for the writers to treat some of its characters seriously when something real is supposed to be on the line? I am tired of movies that portray intellectuals as emotionally crippled alien beings. Michael Sheen is completely wasted as Mark, Portia’s boyfriend of ten years. We spend one scene in their apartment and we can tell immediately that it is not going to work out. There has to be a reason why they have been together for a decade. It is as if the screenplay does not even bother to construct believable interior lives for its characters.
The best scenes pack wit and excitement but are short-lived. I enjoyed simple moments like Portia reading, in voiceover, college admission essays. It made me feel like it was only yesterday since I wrote one. I knew I was a good writer but I was so nervous; I remember sending my essay and not feeling very confident about it. The words being read are fun to listen to because the essays have character in them. I would have liked to have heard more. In addition, there are a few silly scenes like Portia grabbing someone’s else’s baby in an attempt to “help.” I laughed but there are not enough of them.
A potentially great scene involves the officers and the dean of admission assessing and voting as to which applicants deserve to receive an acceptance letter. However, the screenplay and direction seem timid to allow a scene to run longer than they should. As a result, the picture fails to engage us completely. After presenting numbers like grade point average, SAT scores, and the like, there is not enough silence to let the audience think about whether the applicant should get in based on those only. Instead, it rushes through the numbers, extracurricular activities, and other recognitions. In the end, it is all a jumble.
The problem with “Admission,” directed by Paul Weitz, is it does not care about the process. It has about five to six subplots but it does get into the nitty-gritty of what it is really like to be a woman who hopes to advance her career, a newly single person meeting a potential mate, a daughter who feels rejected by her own mother, and someone who thinks she is ready to be a parent. Since the process and details fall on the wayside, the film ends up being merely a trifle.