If there truly is a compelling human comedy within Paul Weitz’s Admission, it’s buried so deeply within itself that no potential audience has a chance of noticing it. Here is a manufactured, strained, highly implausible story with a need to be taken seriously that borders on desperation. Although not strictly speaking a romantic comedy, it does rely heavily on many of the conventions romantic comedies are known for, such as meet cutes, quirky side characters, artificial setups that intentionally lead to humorous outcomes, and relationship fiascos summoned out of thin air and perpetuated simply to generate more laughs. Since none of the characters are developed well, it comes down to distinguishing the disappointing from the terrible. The latter category applies mostly to bit players, all so broadly drawn that they’re nothing more than caricatures.
There are essentially two thematic layers to this film, both of which could have resonated had they not been at the mercy of the unconvincing plot. One is competition on a personal, professional, and academic level, all of which are directly related to the college admissions process. The other is discovery, not merely of the self but also of others. Said themes were explored in the novel the film is based on, which was written by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who’s married to a Princeton University professor and had several years’ worth of experience as an outside reader for Princeton’s Office of Admissions. I haven’t read the novel, and I admit that I lack the firsthand knowledge of the admissions process Korelitz obviously has. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter; the real issue is the story built around the admissions process. You don’t need insider information to see that it doesn’t work.
The central character is Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a straight-and-narrow admissions officer for Princeton University. Her job requires her to evaluate thousands of teenage applicants, the vast majority of which, as seen during an early montage, are annoying overachiever typecasts with wealthy family connections and/or inspirational biographies. How many college hopefuls are likely to show off their gymnastic skills on the desk of the admissions officer while being interviewed? Never mind. When it’s announced that the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is ready to retire, Portia learns that she and her office rival (Gloria Reuben) are the likeliest candidates to succeed him. Portia isn’t a ruthless competitor, but she is determined to receive the promotion, and so she goes on her annual recruiting trip. This itself comes on the heels of the devastating announcement that Princeton has dropped in national ranking from first to second.
One of her stops is an alternative high school in New Hampshire, which is located so deep in the forest that Portia’s GPS isn’t able to track it. The school, in which students learn how to milk cows and chop wood for irrigation purposes, was founded on the bleeding-heart humanitarian ideals of the head teacher, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). He’s ashamed of his affluent upbringing and has travelled the world over for liberal causes with his adopted Ugandan son, Nelson (Travaris Spears), who understandably just wants to stay in one place for an extended period of time. John, Portia’s former college classmate, had an ulterior motive for pestering Portia into visiting his school; he wanted to introduce her to an unconventional yet highly gifted student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who not only wants to attend Princeton but may also be the illegitimate son Portia gave up for adoption years ago.
This sudden revelation sends Portia into a personal and professional tailspin, as she must now reevaluate everything she believed about herself and her job. She puts her reputation at great risk by repeatedly bending the admission rules for Jeremiah, who has yet to be told what could be the truth. All this is exacerbated by the sudden departure of Portia’s emotionally immature boyfriend (Michael Sheen), a Princeton professor, and by her mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin), a fiercely independent feminist writer who used her Amazonian principles as an excuse for depriving Portia of a father and a normal childhood. Not only does Susannah insist on Portia calling her by her first name, she won’t even feed her dogs; she believes that, because they’re natural carnivores with survival instincts, they can and should hunt for their own food in the forest. She’s unquestionably the film’s worst character, developed on sweeping generalizations that cross the fine line between satire and cruelty.
The last act of Admission, during which the votes are cast by the board of admissions, is designed to convince audiences that Jeremiah deserves to be accepted into Princeton despite being an atypical applicant. He never excelled in conventional schools, and yet living life and voracious reading put him at genius levels of academic achievement, as evidenced by his remarkably high SAT scores. The filmmakers’ position is that he should be accepted because he learns for the sake of learning. True, he has amassed large amounts of information. He hasn’t, however, narrowed his focus to anything that could apply to a career, which is what colleges like Princeton are for. So already, this argument has collapsed. We also have a contradiction on our hands. Since it has already been established that Jeremiah rejects conventional educational approaches, why should we believe he would want to attend any college at all, ivy-league or otherwise? I should think he would prefer to just keep reading.
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