Tina Fey makes funny TV shows and funny movies and writes funny books.
Director Paul Weitz often goes for something beyond funny — emotional stories of parents and children trying to puzzle out something beyond flesh and blood that bonds them.
She did “30 Rock” and “Date Night.” He did “About a Boy” and “Being Flynn.”
And somewhere on the uncertain ground between the two is “Admission.” It’s a romantic comedy of sorts about a lovelorn Princeton admissions officer forced to reconcile her judgmental job with the news that the baby she gave up for adoption 17 years ago might be applying to Princeton.
It’s not a particularly satisfying comedy, but thanks to the cast and some of the odd directions it takes, “Admission” is an intensely likable one.
Portia (Fey) spends her days competing with Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to see who can be the snobbiest in front of the head of admissions (Wallace Shawn), hoping against hope to get the top job when he retires.
She comes home to her English lit professor live-in beau (Michael Sheen), who reads Chaucer aloud and declares, “I like this life. I do I do!” No children, an academic setting, a life of letters and purpose — what’s not to like about it?
But calls are coming in. Quest, this new alternative school where kids learn to split wood, milk cows, build robots and think for themselves, has a star student. And his teacher, John (Paul Rudd), is determined to get Portia’s attention. The student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), could be “Princeton material.”
There’s something else John wants to get across, in between awkward moments of violating Princeton policy and instances where Portia is sure he’s making a pass.
“Jeremiah — I think he’s your son.”
Much of the film is about miscommunication, things that stop just short of being said: Portia accepting this shocking news, or denying it; John and Portia trying to not tell the kid. She keeps seeing little things the teen does that are like her and starts looking for shortcuts so that he can get into college.
Fey has made romantically put-upon her stock in trade, and as Portia’s life unravels, there are plenty of moments that remind us of Fey’s lonely “30 Rock” loser, Liz Lemon. Portia is set up to be in open revolt against a “hippie” school like Quest thanks to her brittle, feminist lioness of a mother (Lily Tomlin). But she’s an egalitarian acting as guardian of the gates of American exclusivity, a college where fewer than one in 26 candidates is “Princeton material.”
Fey plays this inner-outer conflict well. But at her most wide-eyed and vulnerable, she still has trouble making a romance credible, even with Rudd, edgy comedy’s puppy dog of a leading man.
And Weitz can’t winnow the story down to a simple personal journey with romantic overtones.
“Admission” breaks down the college admissions process, makes blunt statements about the upper class’ “legacy,” and the cards students and their hovering parents will play to score Ivy League acceptance.
It’s too scattered and too ambitious for a movie that often slips into feminist, academic, postponed-motherhood and “alternative”-education cliches.