Friday, March 22, 2013

Admission

Review by Pamela Zoslov

For several years, I've been on a committee that selects candidates for a graduate school scholarship. Consequently, I understand why Portia Nathan, the Princeton admissions officer played by Tina Fey in ADMISSION, finds the process depressing. Nothing highlights the inadequacies of your own life like reading transcripts, personal essays and lists of accomplishments by super-achieving youths with bright, shiny futures. At times, you're tempted to do as George Costanza did when awarding a scholarship on Seinfeld: pick the underachiever who reminds you of yourself.

Portia, it seems, was poised for better things than a career in college admissions. The daughter of a famous 1970s feminist author and named for a Shakespeare heroine, she was a promising literary prodigy who got derailed into a stagnant job and a longtime relationship with a patronizing English professor (Michael Sheen) who pats her head like she's a Golden Retriever. She's an expert in the art of selecting students with the best chance for success (she tells eager candidates “the secret is, there is no secret”). She's competing with a devious rival (Gloria Reuben) for a promotion, her relationship is on the rocks, and a secret from her past surfaces and collides with her career. The movie's title has a double meaning – will Portia admit to the buried secret from her past?


Directed by Paul Weitz (BEING FLYNN) and based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a former Princeton admissions officer, the film offers insight into the mysterious Ivy League admissions process – an admittedly narrow area of interest. The film animates Portia's interior monologues by conjuring up the candidates physically, some of them falling through a trap door in the floor as their folders are marked “DENY.” (In a bit of visual wit, a distraught Portia wakes up from a nap at her desk with the word “DENY” from her ink stamp imprinted on her cheek.) The novel tells a rather somber story, whereas the movie, which co-stars Paul Rudd as the idealistic head of an alternative school, is being marketed as a romantic comedy, with a trailer emphasizing silly hijinks, like a cow noisily giving birth and Portia's tough mom (an excellent Lily Tomlin) brandishing a shotgun. The film itself is more subdued, with handsome production design and a fairly clever screenplay by Karen Croner.

Portia crosses paths with Rudd's character, John, whose experimental Quest School is proffering a candidate for Princeton, when she accepts his invitation to visit his rustic rural school. Quest School is a kind of Peace Corps academy, teaching students to do world-saving things like building irrigation systems. Unlike the ambitious applicants Portia usually addresses, the Quest students, sitting cross-legged in a barn, display little interest in her talk about “the secret” to Ivy League acceptance. One student asks why they should be interested in getting into “an elitist institution with a history of discrimination” against minorities? Good question, and an interesting expression of the book and movie's ambivalence about its subject.

John is pushing his favorite student, the eager, lanky Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), an adopted kid and self-taught prodigy who began devouring books at age eight as a way of filling the hole left by not knowing his birth parents. A nonconformist who for some reason wants to go to straitlaced Princeton, he's a problem candidate: his grades are terrible, but his test scores are exceptional. Ordinarily he wouldn't make the cut, but John throws in an added incentive: he tells Portia Jeremiah is her son. (This is not a spoiler; it's revealed in the movie trailer.) The revelation hits Portia hard – her boyfriend has just left her, in a Ted Hughes-Sylvia Plath move, for a pregnant, British Virginia Woolf scholar (Sonya Walger). Portia is forced to reexamine her life choices and considers compromising her professional ethics for the sake of her putative son.

Fey is perfectly cast as the competent but self-doubting professional (a specialty of hers), but the movie does Rudd no favors. His character, a restless globe-trotter who hauls his reluctant African adopted son (Travaris Spears) from country to country, is not particularly appealing; the talented comic actor is given scarcely a funny line or believable moment. Portia's falling into bed, and in love, with John is a contrivance, not organically motivated by the narrative. His motives for wreaking havoc in Portia's life aren't clear. Is he a clumsy fool, or is he manipulating Portia, who was in his class at Dartmouth, to get his prize student into Princeton?

The movie's chief fault is that it tries to pack too much plot into a two-hour movie at the expense of adequate character development. There are compensations: mostly fine performances and generally classy handling. The story touches on issues familiar to contemporary working women, addressed recently in the controversial self-help book Lean In: the conflicts and compromises between success and femininity. Is Portia a failure because she didn't publish books, as her mother did, or because she isn't fecund like her ex-boyfriend's professorial paramour? The movie cops out a little for the sake of a happy ending, but that these questions are raised at all suggests that ADMISSION is a little more thoughtful than the average romantic comedy. 3 out of 4 stars.

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