She’s Making a List and Checking it Twice
What is one thing you’d like to achieve in your time here? What are any notable academic distinctions and honors you have earned? What’s the greatest adversity you’ve had to overcome and how did you do it? Everyone who’s applied for college knows the generic and vacuous questions that each school posits in their applications, and we can all imagine the thousands of similarly generic responses high school hopefuls submit. It’s that time of year too, when seniors who have put off filling in their resumes vigorously conjure up spicy adjectives and exaggerated leadership positions to earn that slight edge over all of the other honor roll applicants. But who are these people that must decipher through the stacks, and how do they do it?
That’s partly what Admission, starring Tina Fey and directed by Paul Weitz, is about. Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University whose tagline whenever tour groups ask what the secret to getting in is, “just be yourself.” It is at once a mocking response to a question mostly unanswerable and a disappointingly bland determining factor to join an Ivy school. It’s also the only thing to say that’s simple enough to prevent elaborating in order to make it back to the comforts of her home and English-Professor boyfriend. He’s played by Michael Sheen, and in ironic 30 Rock fashion unexpectedly dumps her for another woman. Portia finds her inner Liz Lemon.
This mini-tragedy is repeatedly inserted into Portia’s life, gags that punctuate a comedy that may have been better suited as a richer drama. But that would be to the detriment of Fey who champions the sarcastic and awkward sides of life to comically convey its strict and serious dimensions. She is less punchy here but, like Weitz, sees the absurdities in the prospective students, their families, and her own colleagues. A whole film could be made on the ludicrous questions asked during tours, nostalgic parents who videotape the entire campus stroll, or many times, the sharp dichotomy between a perky tour guide and silent clump of applicants. Behind the scenes however are the admissions officers steadily at work, and in this case, trying to maintain Princeton’s #1 ranking on the college board of review.
Weitz likes pecking at these kinds of social institutions, whether it be the internal struggles of sexual high school teens in American Pie, or his In Good Company, portraying the corporate young and old tug-of-war between work and family. Admission follows the same vain by both interrogating and poking fun at the college admissions process and its officers, but also by backing off its hairier details, resorting to a familiar light and loose amalgam.
In between editing stacks of applications and making boardroom pitches for her “chosen ones,” Portia travels the Northeast corridor, pitching Princeton to various high schools with eager and attentive seniors. She meet’s Paul Rudd’s character John Pressman along the trip, a similar Dartmouth grad and head of an experimental school. He, like Fey, is a king of awkward comedy, but pulls back here, a better straight man to Fey’s quirkier lines. Their chemistry builds, as do the stakes, which involves John’s brilliant but overlooked student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) and Portia’s regretful past. Invoked by John’s determined state, she believes she is Jeremiah’s mother, a son she gave up for adoption during her irresponsible high school years.
For any seriousness that evolves it is predominantly shoved aside by scene-stealer, and movie-stealer in this case, Lily Tomlin. She is Portia’s independent, biking, tattooed, foul-mouthed mother, who doesn’t even like being called the latter term. Living alone in a large artsy cottage she becomes Portia’s inspiration to follow a different life plan than her own. Tomlin appears to have the most fun in her role however, pointing rifles and inducing casual love affairs. Her own love does not have the standard GPA, test-score formula Portia seeks to find on her desk stack each day.
Portia’s ultimate dilemma is battling her subjectivity with Jeremiah’s unconventional resume and her trained impartiality. But there are also so many other dilemmas, and we get glimpses of them all, even John’s, whose own adopted son expresses his discontentment with constantly moving to different countries (John is an inspired humanitarian).
Admission would have probably liked to have taken on all of these existential and emotional routes, but it stays on a main road veering ever so slightly from its conventional barriers. And while nothing entirely unique separates its stock, it at least tries to be itself, which, for Portia, counts for something. “Accept,” well…”Wait-list.”