Admission, from director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy), is blessed with an interesting subject and an engaging cast but doesn't really take these elements very far.
Tina Fey is Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, which has just slipped from number one to number two in college rankings, drawing pressure from the dean (Wallace Shawn) to bring in the "best class ever." Paul Rudd is John Pressman, the founder of a new experimental school with a brilliant but unconventional student ("My mind goes on a walkabout," the kid explains) he's trying to get into Princeton. John also has an ulterior motive, convinced that the student, who was adopted, is the birth child of Portia, whom John went to college with and who he knows gave up a baby for adoption.
This plot line is convoluted and seems a little screenplay gimmicky at first, but the film sorts it all out with more ease and believability than I expected.
The problem with Admission is that it never finds the right balance between broad humor and human drama. It's possible to do both — Weitz did pretty well in this regard with About a Boy, but that's more than a decade ago now — but this film can't quite handle that balance and ends up nailing neither.
Fey and Rudd are two of the most likable comic actors of their generation and are starring together for the first time. There's chemistry there. But they need something to work with, and this script just isn't sharp enough.
The college setting is promising, and some of the most interesting segments of the film are the more process-oriented depictions of how admissions work from the inside. One nice visual gambit is having images of kids appear to make their case while Portia and fellow admissions officers read their files and later make the case — or not — for prospective students in larger staff meetings. These scenes make you wish the movie had dug deeper into that theme and makes you want to see a good documentary on the subject.
But despite all of this and good supporting work from the likes of Gloria Reuben and Lily Tomlin, Admission is more agreeable than memorable. Strictly waiting list material.
Opening Friday, March 22nd