Tina Fey's Great, but Admission Doesn't Have the Marks
An actress in her 30s — a woman, that is, still playing characters of babymaking age — may have it even tougher than actresses in their 40s and 50s. Unless she is exceedingly glamorous, a la Charlize Theron, she can all too easily get stranded in the land of mom roles: Hair twisted into a messy bun, she's perennially grabbing her purse to whisk the kids off to soccer or dance. That on-screen image is a cartoon distillation of the trade-offs women make in real life: These movie women are exhausted, but they're happy.
Tina Fey's character in Paul Weitz's Admission doesn't have that easily defined role, as this not-quite-a-comedy presents her childless state as almost a tragedy. But even though Fey, a killer comic actor, brings much more to the role than the movie asks of her, Admission doesn't have the courage to suggest that a childless woman who's doing work she loves just may have it all, or at least her all.
Fey plays Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan, a character who admittedly doesn't quite love her work, though she doesn't know that yet. Her job doesn't mean seeking out the most deserving students or even the best qualified; what's crucial is finding the right mix of pedigreed stock (to keep the Princeton brand valuable) and appealing mongrels with high SAT scores (presumably to meet quotas). She believes the gig is fulfilling her, but it's really just wearing her out. On top of that, she has a cozy but dull — and childless — life with her significant other, played by Michael Sheen, a whiskery, elfin academic who chuckles to himself as he reads the Canterbury Tales prologue aloud in bed, in Middle English no less. (Sheen is scarily good at this.)
What's missing from Portia's life? Might it be ... a child? It doesn't help that her S.O. runs off with an icy Woolf scholar — regularly referred to as "that Woolf woman" — whom he's impregnated (with twins). But here's another thing that Portia doesn't know yet: That she might be mom material already. An old college classmate, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the half-twinkly, half-insufferable principal of an alternative high school in the wilds of New Hampshire, has contacted her about one of his students, a weird but obviously brilliant kid named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Pressman believes Jeremiah might have a shot at Princeton. He also drops the bomb — and what follows constitutes a minor spoiler — that Jeremiah might be Portia's son, the now-teenage version of the baby she gave up some 16 years ago. Once she begins to see — or just imagine — herself in him, Portia begins pulling Ivy League strings for Jeremiah, beyond what she'd do for any other student.
The fact that Jeremiah may be Portia's flesh and blood is supposed to intensify the story's moral complications. But, really, what difference does it make? Wouldn't Admission be more potent if the heroine took action on behalf of a kid in need who wasn't her own? The movie flirts with the idea that Portia, simply by seeing a spark in him and fighting for his chance to get into a great school, has helped Jeremiah greatly by not being his mother. But it can't shake the idea that actual parenting is the nobler effort.
Admission does land a few punches, but Weitz, an openhearted director if not always a precise one, can't bring himself to whet the knives. Only Fey drills to the center of what Admission might have been.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.