Thursday, March 21, 2013

College-based 'Admission' has little to say

Fey and Rudd can't save a movie that too often flatlines.
I wasn't exactly trembling with anticipation about a comedy that revolves around the agonies associated with Princeton University's admission process -- even when I learned that the movie stars the gifted Tina Fey and the affable Paul Rudd.

The new movie Admission marks one of those rare times when my initial expectations proved right. As directed by Paul Weitz from Karen Croner's adaptation of a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission offers little by way of fresh insight and even less reason for us to get heavily involved.

Why? Consider: Although anxiety about college admissions has become a national pastime for hordes of high school seniors, the incoming class at Princeton is limited to 1,248 students, or at least that's what the movie tells us at the outset. Those privileged few are culled from a stack of applications numbering more than 26,000.

Even at that, we're talking about a small number of youngsters who aspire to (or even think about) Princeton. Moreover, it's probably reasonable to assume that many of Princeton's applicants are the offspring of the exceptionally well-heeled.

Put another way: Finding a rooting interest when it comes to admission to one of the nation's most elite universities is not exactly a slam dunk.

Even if you discount my state-school bias, Admission still doesn't hold up, mostly because it doesn't really have a whole lot to say.

Fey plays Portia, a career-minded woman who works as an admissions officer at Princeton. And work she does. Portia's burdened with a fair number of those 26,000-plus applications, each representing the dreams of the young, hopeful and bright.

Portia also aspires to replace her boss (a very credible Wallace Shawn), an administrator who's on the verge of retirement. Portia is one of two leading candidates for the dean of admissions job, the other being a woman (Gloria Reuben) who seems more adept when it comes to office politics.

The story -- and eventually Portia's future -- hinges on the fate of one high school student (Nat Wolff), a youngster whose grades are terrible but whose test scores are off-the-charts. Wolff's Jeremiah attends New Quest, an experimental school where Rudd's character teaches.

We quickly learn that Rudd's John Pressman went to Dartmouth with Portia, which is one of the reasons he tries to persuade her to give Jeremiah special consideration. He understands that the kid might be a bit of a project, but he wants to help the young man -- an orphan who was adopted by a hard-working couple that runs a convenience store.

It's just here that you might be asking yourself a few pertinent questions. Wouldn't a really concerned teacher suggest that Jeremiah might flourish in at least one other school besides Princeton, that he ought to aim high but also hedge his bets?

Rudd's character comes off as too much of a benevolent cliche, a do-gooder with an adopted Ugandan son named Nelson (Travaris Spears). John teaches at a school where the students get involved with such unconventional pursuits as caring for farm animals, but he hankers to roll up his sleeves, get back to a developing country and lift more of the world's lost souls out of the mud of impoverishment.

Throw Lily Tomlin into the mix as Portia's feminist mother and you've got the makings of a movie that never finds a believable groove and in which character traits are drawn with a very broad brush.

Tomlin's character, for example, can't just be a feminist: She has to have a tattoo of Bella Abzug on her right shoulder. She insists that Portia call her "Susannah" instead of "mom." Perhaps to bolster her bona fides, we're told that she's written a well-regarded book entitled The Masculine Myth.

Everyone knows (or should) that Fey is a brilliant comic actress, but -- like the movie itself -- she seldom clicks, perhaps because the screenplay keeps throwing curves at her character. An example: Portia's significant other (Michael Sheen), an English professor, dumps her for a "hot" new scholar in the English department.

Admissions makes room for a couple of plot twists that you may not see coming, but they can't elevate a college-centered comedy in which Fey and Rudd don't generate enough romantic sparks to fire material that obviously wants to bring them together.

Admission doesn't seem to have much awareness that it might have used its story to say something unexpected and sharp about elite schools, college craziness, boiling ambition and love.

At the risk of pushing a college simile to the breaking point, I'd say that Admission is a lot like the student who enrolls in a whole lot of courses -- a few potentially interesting -- but can't find a way to excel at any of them.

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