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By Sunny Choi · March 24, 2013
Thousands of high school students will be hearing from colleges and universities this weekend. In light of this national phenomenon, the new film Admission satirizes the competitive rush to acquire a spot at an Ivy League university. While it drew some laughs thanks to a smattering of funny jokes and likable leads, the movie became muddled and confusing as it tried to tackle too many issues and subplots. While the trailer led me to anticipate a satirical yet light-hearted romantic comedy, Admission was more of an attempt at a serious, dramatic, and thought-provoking film. Unfortunately it was far from perfect, to attain that it would require a stronger, wittier, and more impactful narrative through further streamlining of its subplots.
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), Director of Admissions at Princeton University, prides herself on leading a very straight-laced and predictable life. This all changes when John Pressman (Paul Rudd), her university classmate and founder of an alternative high school, asks her to give an information session to his students. John believes that Portia may be the birth mother of one of his students, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a self-proclaimed auto-didact who loves learning for the sake of learning. He boasts an extensive knowledge of philosophy and literature. John believes that Jeremiah deserves to be admitted into Princeton despite his weak GPA and troubled youth. Stirred by maternal instincts, Portia finds herself bending the rules and compromising her integrity to help Jeremiah through the admission process. Meanwhile, Portia’s life is going downhill. Her long-time boyfriend (Michael Sheen), a pompous English professor, leaves her for a lustful Virginia Woolf scholar (Sonya Walger). She also blames most of her problems on her zany feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) who wants her daughter to reconnect with her independent, trailblazer self.
Like many romantic comedies, Admission emphasizes how sad and lonely it is to lead a solitary and completely predictable life. In this way, the movie closely mirrors Paul Weitz’s past film, About a Boy. Portia must reevaluate her choice of dedicating herself to her work rather than forging long-term, sustainable relationships with anyone, including her own family. The narrative also tackles the role of parenting, especially as each parent is shown to impose his or her worldview on their child without any consideration for what that child might want out of life. We see this with Portia, who struggles to communicate with her overbearing mother; and with John, who insists on leading a rootless and humanitarian life, much to the dismay of his adopted African son (Travaris Stevens), who prefers a more stable life. The film suggests that imposing one’s world view on others causes a disconnect between people that makes it impossible to relate. Despite the inclusion of this rather refreshing insight, the romantic subplot between John and Portia stands on the clichéd paradigm that opposites attract. Portia, who leads a routine-based life, finds herself increasingly attracted to John, a free-spirited and pleasant educator and good Samaritan. Here it appears that the writers impose a world view of their own for the sake of convenience.
The clunky editing epitomized the disconnect between what seemed like two distinctly separate narratives—one cleverly satirizes the ludicrously high standards for evaluating college applicants, and the other extols the importance of welcoming people into one’s life despite their faults and differences. This made it difficult to discern whether the film was taking itself seriously or not. The film featured many reaction shots full of emotion, sincerity, and introspection. But these were later juxtaposed against witty and slapstick skits, mostly spearheaded by Fey’s keen comic timing and brisk delivery. All in all, I felt that the movie vacillated between mildly snarky satire and dramatic examination of treasuring family and friends. Any piece of writing requires transition between the ideas it puts forth in order to engage its audience and find success in the communication of those ideas. This film is no exception to that requirement.
All of the characters are fundamentally flawed and even broken in some way, and this is great. A story needs flawed characters to truly engage and inspire an audience, otherwise things stagnate. In this film, John, an amiable and very accomplished man, possesses a fundamental flaw–He can’t resist the urge to fix people’s lives. And Portia takes a long time to realize that she is a mere cog in the machine, contributing to a ridiculous competition that disadvantages students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The film breaks generic conventions as it penetrates the slapstick comedy and awkward humor to focus on the stories of the individual characters. So even though it doesn’t fully mesh, the film has its plus points.
Some noteworthy performances manage to sustain this zany comedy. Lily Tomlin shines as Fey’s overbearing mother—a high-spirited feminist and hermit of the woods. Michael Sheen deftly plays a goofier version of his pedantic scholar of Midnight in Paris. His character literally treats Portia as a dog, constantly patting her on the head and extolling her as a loyal companion. The scenes between Portia, her rival admissions officer, Corrine (Gloria Reuben), and the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) sing with satiric wit and humor.
If you appreciate Fey and enjoy serious comedies, check out Admission. The film cleverly compares the admissions process to a reality talent TV show, riddled with human interest stories and insanely high standards. Many parents, current applicants, and former applicants will enjoy these satirical jabs at the admissions staff and the overeager parents and students. It’s not exactly the type of movie that you would expect from Fey or Rudd, but it does raise some interesting questions about parenting and the pressures of school.