By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Smarty pants me figured I had director Paul Weitz’s “Admission” all figured out. She’s the uptight, overachieving admissions officer at Princeton who gave her baby up for adoption back in college. He’s the easygoing head of an alternative school, anxious to get a pet prodigy into Princeton. So of course we know how it plays out…right? Wrong!
Mr. Weitz, working from Karen Croner’s adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s sociologically astute novel, smartly leads us down the garden path. Making use of our preconceptions, he teaches us a thing or two about judging a book by its cover. The lead metaphor is then nicely enhanced, with a fine twist-finale alighting as the cherry on top.
Featuring solid performances all around, the she is Portia Nathan, portrayed by Tina Fey in a star turn that unfolds a thespic talent beyond her ability to make us laugh. While it’d be cinema sacrilege to compare her portrayal to Stanwyck’s “Stella Dallas” (1937), either I’m a crybaby or her misplaced mom is awfully effective. Oh, she’s good and funny, too.
From the moment Paul Rudd’s nonconformist educator informs Portia that the genius in question is, alas, the prodigal adoptee, Miss Fey adroitly alternates between her profession’s two masks. And in the bargain, a whole panoply of conundrums, moral, emotional or both, are let loose for the characters to sort through and for us to mull.
Chief of course is the meditation on that greater love that no one hath like your Mom, even if it sometimes drives you nuts. This leads us to the story’s ethical question. Just what should be Portia’s stance as young Jeremiah Balakian goes through the admissions process? Bear in mind she’s bucking for the soon to be vacant dean of admissions spot.
Comically and curiously, the plot complicates the central predicament with a host of supporting characters and situations. Leading the parade of bittersweet whimsy is Portia’s single mom, a noted women’s rights activist who has never said die to her Hippy mantra. Exquisitely realized by Lily Tomlin, she lends a credible, historical quirk to the doings.
Playing semi-straight man and attracted opposite to Miss Fey’s personality in transition, and maybe not beyond an epiphany himself, Paul Rudd continues his stream of likeable characters. Revolting against his blueblood background, gin-drinking society mater et al, humanist John Pressman just can’t grow roots, much to the chagrin of his adopted son.
Acquired whilst John was doing good works in Africa, Nelson (Travaris Spears), who is quick to note he isn’t a wunderkind like Jeremiah, is fond of Portia because she’s “so boring.” Meaning, by his definition, that she doesn’t suffer from Dad’s wanderlust and stays put. The conglomeration of interactions results in a monograph on parenthood.
Now, to temper these glowing effusions, it bears noting that more than one happenstance or serendipitous story construct smacks a tad contrived. But then again, going back to the positive side of the ledger, the characters are so enamoring that, just as with a good friend possessing obvious foibles, we issue dispensation in the cause of our own entertainment.
Plus, the subjects at hand, everyday things that have had us in a quandary at one time or another, are inherently provocative. Part satire, part deadly serious diatribe about the rigors of getting into the so-called “right school,” it’s a good little chapter in the human comedy. And the pages about parenting are, at the very least, intelligently commiserative.
Akin to a champion sports team whose success is due in great part to its profusely stellar bench strength, Miss Tomlin’s pip of a supporting stint is accompanied by a host of complementing ancillaries. Nat Wolff sufficiently convinces us that he is the alternate school icon personified, while Travaris Spears, the kid in his shadow, is sweetly drawn.
Representing tradition, the establishment and a cold splash of the hard facts, Wallace Shawn is efficaciously dogmatic as Clarence, the little boss whose position Miss Fey’s go-getter hopes to one day assume. Whereas Gloria Reuben is also quite effective as Corinne, her equally ambitious rival for that esteemed post. The knives are sharpened.
But just in case these multifarious threads don’t constitute enough storyline or subtext, I refer you to the title’s other meaning. Proffering that there is the surface self, as well as the real deal one generally keeps close to the vest, we have the good fortune of meeting this film’s principals just as they are ripe to admit and therefore actualize their true ids.
Thus, there is created for our rationalizing pleasure a cathartic cleansing. Even if we secretly wish an entree to those strata of status and entitlement associated with places like Princeton, this acerbic dashing to the ground of stodgy old conventions, dramatized by folks with whom we can identify, makes it worth the price of “Admission.”
“Admission,” rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Paul Weitz and stars Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin. Running time: 107 minutes
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