Ivy League Tina Fey — Higher Learning Gets Schooled

City Pulse | March 19, 2013
An above-average romantic comedy, “Admission” profits considerably from Tina Fey’s reliable comic efforts as Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer approaching an unforeseen midlife crisis. Sending up Ivy League practices for attracting and, mostly, rejecting desperate young college applicants is all part of the film’s canny satire. If the American college system is one big scam, Ivy League schools are shown as the worst offenders. It’s especially droll that the real Princeton University is used rather than a fictional school. In an age when the cost of higher learning comes with potentially bankrupting student loans, “Admission” is about how the process of learning is an ongoing process that never stops. Having the ability to work inside the system means having the aptitude to move beyond it.

Fey’s upwardly motivated Portia anchors the film’s personal aspects. She’s engaged in a catfight struggle with her African American co-worker Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to take over the soon-to-be-vacant Dean of Admissions post currently held by Wallace Shawn’s Clarence character. Portia’s NPR-approved home life marriage to a pretentiously highbrow college professor — Mark (Michael Sheen) — is going down the drain quick. Tina Fey’s quirky-but-sexy-librarian manner makes her an ideal protagonist ripe for ethical challenges. She receives a doozy.

Recruiting road trips to high schools come with Portia’s job description. Her canned Princeton pitch doesn’t go over so well at New Quest, an alternative high school run by one-man-show educational visionary John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a world traveler committed to bringing up his adopted son. Assembly-line learning isn’t what the students at New Quest have in mind. Here are a group of informed kids capable of reading between the lines of a collegiate educational system built on capitalist ideals of greed, racism, and sexism. There’s comic satisfaction in seeing intelligent — rather than intellectual students — speaking truth to bravura. Portia gets stung.

John has an ulterior motive. He introduces Portia to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) a young man John has reason to believe is Portia’s biological child that she gave up for adoption nearly two decades ago. John is a helper. He also has the hots for Portia, a fact that her feminist mom (Lily Tomlin) is none to pleased to endorse. She’d rather point her shotgun in his direction.

Paul Rudd continues his winning streak of amiable comic post-hippie characters. A more congenial romantic comic pairing — Fey and Rudd — you are not likely to find.

Portia takes up the insider cause of insuring Jeremiah’s entry into Princeton at any cost. However much Jeremiah has blossomed academically at New Quest — he’s something of a prodigy — his educational past isn’t so impressive on the printed page.

Crosscurrents of romance, drama, and comedy flow through one another. The movie hits its stride during a roundtable admissions process whereby each officer defends his or her picks for applicants. Comic suspense builds as Portia plays her best game of political strategy on Jeremiah’s behalf.

“Admission” is a “talk film.” Shifts in comic tone come without warning. The audience gets caught up in the battle for pent-up hopes between the film’s three main characters. We want the best for them, but understand that the status quo will never fill that gap. We’ve all still got a lot to learn.

Rated PG-13. 117 mins. (B)

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