Review: ‘Admission’ wastes the considerable charms of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd

I haven’t read the novel by Jean Hanff Koreltiz that served as the source material for the new film “Admission,” but Karen Croner’s screenplay is one of those films where the lead characters are ostensibly smart people who do some oddly not-so-smart things for reasons that seem less than genuine. I wouldn’t call “Admission” a bad film, but I think it’s a muted pleasure at best, even with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd both doing their best to keep things light and charming.

Fey stars as Portia Nathan, who works at Princeton as one of the gatekeepers who help decide who gets into the school and who doesn’t. Portia is portrayed as one of those people who has no real life outside of her job as the film begins, and she seems fine with that. Her devotion is one of the reasons she ends up as a candidate to replace her boss (Wallace Shawn), the department head who is about to retire. All she has to do is buckle down for one more admissions season, do her job as well as she always has, and then reap the rewards.

Portia spends part of the year touring schools and she’s approached by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who runs an alternative school called New Quest. He wants her to see his school, and in particular, he wants her to meet a student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who he considers a prime candidate for Princeton. The film gets preposterously complicated very quickly once John reveals that Jeremiah is actually Portia’s son who she gave up for adoption at birth, just as Portia’s boyfriend (Michael Sheen) dumps her in favor of a girlfriend who he got pregnant.

My problem with the film is that I have a hard time believing that someone who is as bad at the basics of social behavior would have done as well in her job as she has. She’s a klutz, but only when it’s convenient, and nothing you see her do in the film would really convince you that she’s a competent and even above-average professional. That always drives me crazy in a film, and especially in a film that deals with ostensibly smart people. I think Paul Weitz is capable of real subtlety, and I can even see some overlap between this and “About A Boy” in terms of thematic territory. As likable as Rudd and Fey are as performers, it feels like they’re propping up a flimsy script, and by the time things reach their fairly predictable conclusion, I just didn’t care. There’s nice work by Lily Tomlin in a small role as Fey’s mother, but it’s so disconnected from any of the primary story of the film that it feels like an afterthought.

Here’s the most damning thing I can say about the film. When I saw it in mid-February, I thought it was, at most, a mild pleasure. Less than a month later, I am having trouble remembering the whole film clearly. I typically have great recall for movies. Films I saw 20 years ago, I can discuss in detail if they work, but a film like this is cinematic Teflon. It just slides right off, and nothing about it sticks. If you feel compelled to see it because of the cast, you’ll get that itch scratched, but if you want anything more, anything substantial, “Admission” simply doesn’t make the grade.

“Admission” opens in theaters this Friday.