At a glance, Admission seems like a fairly standard feel-good movie: Princeton University admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) falls in love with the head of an alternative school, grapples with the prospect that one of the school’s students may be the baby she gave up for adoption in college, and comes to terms with herself in the process. True to the best of director Paul Weitz’s work, however, the comedic melancholy through which Portia’s growth comes about exhibits an honesty that consistently turns would-be cliché moments on their heads. Close in tone and content to Weitz’s greatest hit, About A Boy, the film is all the more extraordinary considering someone else wrote it.
Fresh off the gut-punch of Being Flynn, Weitz returns to lighter fare without losing his dramatic edge. Guided by Karen Croner’s script, adapted from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, he inspires greatness from his talented cast, many of whom have struggled in recent film work. Following the tradition of Hugh Grant in About A Boy and Dennis Quaid’s In Good Company turn, Fey shows a newfound vulnerability while maintaining her knack for humor. Successfully encapsulating Portia’s shock at the collapse of her supposedly stable life, it’s a joy to watch the 30 Rock star engage in a rash of questionable behavior that’s often funny but also comes with sobering consequences.
As Portia risks her professional integrity to get potential son Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) into Princeton, Admission flirts with predictability at numerous junctures. In Jeremiah, she sees an opportunity to make peace with a painful past she’s worked hard to forget, while at the same time free-thinking Quest School administrator John Pressman (Paul Rudd) presents a shot at true romance. Through various wheeling and dealing it appears that she’ll get her wishes, yet by embracing sincerity whenever possible, the film consistently takes the realistic route and is all the stronger for it. Building the audience up alongside Portia to an assumed happy ending, the cold slap of disappointment yields surprises galore and graciously points characters to what they need rather than what they want.
Aiding the effort are strong bows by its supporting players. Freed from his Apatowian bonds, Rudd is refreshingly reined in and extremely likable. His chemistry with Fey is all one could hope from such a pairing and eases the pain of his lackluster 2012. Likewise strong is Michael Sheen as the ex Portia inevitably runs into during her lowest lows, a feisty Lily Tomlin as her intimidating feminist mother Susannah, and a breakout child performance by Travaris Spears as John’s adopted son Nelson. Along with Fey, they craft a brand of heartfelt entertainment that’s rare in modern romantic comedies. Not one to be boxed in by that designation, Admission shoots for more than a standard fairy tale ending and in doing so gives new life to a tired genre.
Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material.
Admission is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.