Admission is a comedy about the panic consuming a nation's youth - and their parents - in their senior year of high school. It is a comedy about a fastidious Princeton University admissions officer's romantic life, or lack thereof. And it is an improbable soap opera about that same woman - played in high Tina Fey-ish style by Tina Fey - and her conflicting desire to be a mom, or not be a mom.
It is also a movie where Paul Rudd shows up as the leading man - so shabbily affable that you'll find yourself quickly growing suspicious of the guy. Rudd, he's got a dark side, right? In reality, he's a total creep, a jerk.
Displaying its smarts (a René Descartes ventriloquist dummy, The Merchant of Venice jokes) and its schmaltz in practically the same breath, Admission never really succeeds in meshing these sundry elements. But the film - directed by Paul Weitz, and adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2009 bestseller - tries. And any film that has Fey and Rudd, and Lily Tomlin, as a firebrand feminist with a Bella Abzug tattoo, can't be all bad. And it's not.
Here's the doozy of a plot: Fey is Portia Nathan, a vigilant gatekeeper for the hallowed Ivy League school where, we're told, 26,247 applicants are vying for a mere 1,308 spots. Portia is one of two admissions officers likely to replace the retiring head (Wallace Shawn). This year's crop of acceptances will determine whether Portia or her highly competitive colleague, Corrine (Gloria Reuben), will get the job. Pressure's on.
And then Portia gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), the hippie-dippie director of a new progressive school, lobbying with exceptional zeal for his first graduating senior, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff). Why? Well, he's a genius, an autodidact. And, by the way, he might be your biological son.
And because Portia's longtime beau, a poncy English professor who happens to be English (Michael Sheen), has announced that he's running off with a Virginia Woolf scholar, the possibility of a romance between Portia and John - an ethical no-no - is, well, possible. And probable.
Especially after the two of them help deliver a calf. Bonding over bovine placenta!
Admission works in stops and starts. The administrative meetings when the staffers make their cases for this applicant or that are sharply funny critiques of the impossible demands put on students to distinguish themselves. (How about that bipolar Inuit girl with the perfect GPA?) Tomlin, who plays Portia's strident, self-reliant mother, is good until the screenplay requires her to break down in a load of sentimental backstory mush. And Wolff, the son of actress Polly Draper, is convincingly prodigious as the prodigy everyone thinks should be a Princetonian.
Fey and Rudd achieve a couple of comedy mindmelds, too, but they're fleeting, as Admission's outlandish contrivances continue to get in the way.