There's a great scene early on in Admission, the new movie from director Paul Weitz (American Pie, Little Fockers), wherein Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan addresses a group of pre-college kids at an alternative school run by John Pressman, a freewheeling former college classmate of hers. Nathan (Tina Fey) had been lured into the presentation by a chance call from Pressman (Paul Rudd), on the heels of an edict from her boss to re-establish Princeton at the top of the admissions ranks by sniffing out future world-changers.
As Nathan launches into her rote routine, she immediately gets cut off by a barrage of questions and accusations from the group of free thinkers, who hammer Princeton as a staid institution built to perpetuate the dominant white-male paradigm. To this point in the movie, Nathan has been portrayed as a draw-inside-the-lines type, a ladder-climber trying to keep her personal life and career on a smooth upward arc despite major fault lines appearing under both worlds.
After a stunned silence, Nathan gathers herself and delivers an impassioned, blistering retort to the effect that even counter-cultural hipster geniuses will need formal education and training to save the world. It's a fantastic and unexpected moment, built on the unconventional thinking of screenwriter Karen Croner and the budding dramatic acting chops of Fey. Admission is chock-full of such moments, and while those moments are not enough to overcome the movie's overall narrative flaws and vault it into must-see territory, they are refreshing enoughespecially given the formulaic hell that consumes most dramatic romantic comediesto make it a worthwhile way to spend a couple hours at the theater.
Based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a good chunk of Admission's appeal comes from the intimate look at the admissions process of an elite schoolan insular and cloistered environment for which a prospective student's status as a brilliant overachiever earns only the right to be considered. Weitz shows a deft touch in illuminating the process, employing a highly effective technique of placing the applicants in the room with Nathan as she reviews their qualifications, her internal narration of the words in front of her blending with, and then taken over by, the apparitions of the kids who are so desperately reaching for the Ivy ring.
Rudd's easy, quirky charm is a nice fit for the role of Pressman, a highly recognizable character as a classic rich-white-kid-turned-social-work-activist. The chemistry between Rudd and Fey is a genuine one, uneasy from start to finish and punctuated by the awkward and surprising moments that define this story. And Lily Tomlin, who very nearly steals the movie as Nathan's tattooed, cancer-surviving, hard-nosed beatnik mother, leads a generally fine and diverse supporting cast. Wallace Shawn also stands out as Nathan's boss, Clarence. Shawn is a fine character actor who will forever live in my mind as the rogue mercenary Vizzini in The Princess Brideyou know, the guy who gets outfoxed by Westley in the poison-drinking scene.
So given the smart and unpredictable writing, sharp dialogue and solid performances, why is it that Admission doesn't work the way it should? That's a hard question to answer, really. A few of the supporting characters are shallow, obtrusive plot-drivers, conventional in a way that the movie rejects for its main characters, and perhaps the ingenuity of that juxtaposition is all the more jarring, given the context. A few of the plot twists sound highly discordant notes, and again, the impact of those shortcomings may well be exaggerated by the overall quality of the writing. Whatever it is, Admission is a curious, and frustrating, case of the whole not reaching the sum of its parts.
Still, this film has the courage to break conventional dram-rom-com conventions, and earns high marks for doing so. But, like the kids it portrays who don't quite have the "it" Princeton is looking for, Admission falls just short of hitting it big.
Admission continues at Carmike 12.