Romantic comedies, man. They’re all the same these days. Throw a breeding pair played by bankable actors together, have them snipe at each other “romantically” for two hours, collect those sweet, sweet millions and repeat. Thankfully, “Admission” deviates from the pack ever so slightly, making the experience far more pleasurable than the average romantic comedy.
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has been a Princeton admissions officer for the past 16 years, and nothing’s ever threatened to change her dull, career-centered life – until now. John Pressman (Paul Rudd), Portia’s former college classmate who now runs an alternative school, calls her up out of the blue so she can meet one of his quirkier students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who’s very interested in going to Princeton. The catch? He called her because John thinks that Jeremiah might be Portia’s long-lost son. So begins Portia’s tale of self-discovery…
With a plot summary like that, one would think that we’d all be in for a load of contrived crap about motherhood and following your dreams, right? Not exactly. Sure, “Admission” goes through a lot of the standard romantic comedy checkpoints, but Karen Croner’s script never quite allows them to feel like the tired tropes they are. For instance, there’s still a third-act fallout between Portia and John, but it’s tied in with the plot, and not just over something stupid as is typical.
In addition, Fey and Rudd play off each other incredibly well (and more than deliver separately, too). Her mastery of cringe comedy mixes so well with his combination of dorkiness and smooth operator charm that you just want them to hurry up and get on with it already.
But even though they’re both great, it’s unmistakably Fey’s show. Despite what the trailers will tell you, “Admission” is more a dramedy than a straight-up comedy, and Fey knocks every single one of her dramatic scenes out of the park. There’s a scene toward the end where Portia advocates for Jeremiah during admissions that could have easily slipped into the maudlin, but Fey never allows it. Will someone please get this woman a full-on dramatic role? She could do wonders with it.
The supporting cast is full of gems as well. Lily Tomlin is hilarious as Portia’s mother, spouting witty anecdotes with fantastic timing and a sardonic knowingness that really grounds the character in reality. Wolff also avoids the trap of being too self-consciously “quirky” and therefore annoying, which allows the audience to really see what Portia and John see in him.
Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws. While director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) manages to squeak in a clever visual idea here and there (a recurring device where Portia visualizes the applicant of the file she’s reading is particularly effective), his pacing is slack and not really conducive to the somewhat thin story. He also seems unsure of how to balance the film’s comedic and dramatic elements, running them parallel to each other rather than finding a way to combine them.
Also, for every two or three jokes that work well, there’s one big clunker to go with them. Much of the character-based and situational humor works, but bits like an incredibly unnecessary scene involving a pregnant cow just feel like they were plucked from another movie entirely.
All in all, “Admission” is a notch or two above the typical romantic comedy, but it can’t quite escape the trappings of its genre entirely. Fortunately, the great performances and wittier-than-expected script definitely make it worth a spot on your Netflix cue, at the very least.
Speakeasy Grade: B-
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin
Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material