Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton. The pressure is on, because, in the U.S. News and World Report listings, the school has dropped to second place after two years at the top. To top it off, Portia is one of two candidates to take over the job of her retiring boss (Wallace Shawn).
Unfortunately her 10-year not-quite-husband (Michael Sheen) chooses this as the moment to abandon her for a Virginia Woolf scholar, leaving our heroine utterly isolated. He would rather lie in bed reading Chaucer than make love, so not really a big loss. She has no kids, largely because of her own miserable childhood in which she was raised by a batty mom (Lily Tomlin), who is also a world-famous feminist writer in the mold of Germaine Greer.
Into her unraveling life comes John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who runs a very “free” school — basically Vermont's Putney School on freethinker steroids. He has an extraordinary student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), whom he desperately wants to get into Princeton, despite the kid's admissions-unfriendly record. He also has a related surprise for Portia.
Writer/director Paul Weitz has assembled an excellent cast but they are stuck with a slightly unbalanced stew of overly recognizable elements. The brilliant Fey is playing a less likable variation of her “30 Rock” character. Sheen is reprising the out-of-it academic he played in last year's underrated “Jesus Henry Christ.” Tomlin is perfectly cast. And relative newcomers Wolff and Travaris Spears both make impressions.
Weitz began his career with three collaborations with his brother Chris. Two of these — “American Pie” (1999) and “About a Boy” (2002) — were excellent and also occupied opposite poles on Prof. Tummler's Comedy Tone Spectrum. Since going solo, his record has been much spottier, with “American Dreamz” (2006) the best. “Admission” is as low-key as “About a Boy,” but the tone never coalesces.
Part of the problem may be the casting of Rudd, who is often hilarious in character roles, but who hasn't been very convincing as a leading man. He is good-looking in a regular-guy sort of way, but that includes too big a dose of bland boyishness. It's like when Ronald Reagan decided to run for governor of California and studio boss Jack Warner reportedly said, “No: Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend.”
Still, “Admission” provokes smiles more frequently than laughs; and smiles are not to be sneezed at. Plus, the filmmakers get extra credit for not having Fey deliver the pathetic cliched lines that the whole film seems to be prepping us for.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).