On a scale of sheer likability, “Admission” scores fairly high on its SATs (See At Theaters).
This earnest but lightweight comedy-drama-romance from director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) — scripted by Karen Croner from a novel of the same title by Jean Hanff Korelitz — is a busy affair with a high-achieving cast (Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn), a somewhat convoluted plotline and a gently satirical eye for the cutthroat process of gaining entrance to America's most elite and selective universities.
The pantheon of higher learning in this case is Princeton, where Fey's straight-laced Portia Nathan serves as an overworked but disciplined admissions officer, guarding the ivy-covered gates against the annual onslaught of bright, ambitious, overachieving high school seniors vying for one of the Ivy League's few coveted letters of acceptance.
Portia's annual ritual — of poring over reams of admission documents, visiting schools to deliver bland advice (“be yourself”) and finally championing a select few candidates in an up-or-down vote with her fellow admissions officers (Wallace Shawn as the officious dean of admissions and Gloria Rueben as her chief rival for promotion) — is knocked off kilter with the appearance of an old college friend/flame, Rudd's touchy-feely do-gooder John Pressman.
John, who runs a crunchy-granola alternative high school in upstate New York, believes he has a young genius on his hands in Jeremiah (Nat Wolff of “The Naked Brothers Band”), an abstractly precocious math and science whiz with an odd penchant for ventriloquism. And besides that, John is convinced that Jeremiah is the illegitimate son Portia gave up for adoption 18 years ago in college.
Naturally, this news throws Portia's well-ordered life into chaos, exacerbated by the cheating ways of her live-in boyfriend, the priggish English Department chairman Mark (Michael Sheen, Fey's Brit-twit boyfriend in “30 Rock”), the firebrand romantic advice of her randy, feminist mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin, hilarious and sporting a Bella Abzug tattoo) and John's entreaties to lower her rigid standards for the unorthodox Jeremiah.
In the midst of Portia's agonizing over Jeremiah's identity and his worthiness for Princeton mantles, a grudging romance sparks up with the well-meaning but footloose and paternalistic John.
Weitz, who seems to alternate between personal films (“Being Flynn”) and for-hire jobs (“Little Fockers”), navigates the meandering story and its tonal shifts, not always smoothly, through some odd twists and turns. But his uncertainty with the material is redeemed somewhat by pithy performances from his cast.
Fey and Rudd form an amiable if unexciting couple. They exude a breezy and enjoyable chemistry without generating much real heat. Wolff turns in an easygoing but confident performance in a tricky role as the teen savant. And Tomlin virtually steals the movie with her prickly, caution-to-the-winds performance as the old-school bra burner.
If “Admission” lacks the teeth to be a truly biting satire on the madness of the college selection ordeal, it works some genial magic as an old-fashioned romantic comedy with a light message and dramatic undertones to give it some academic heft.
— Dennis King