ADMISSION is a thoughtful comedy being tragically hyped as a comedy of the screwball variety. It’s a disservice to a story that is both funny and intelligent, as well as to a ticket-buyer led to believe that he or she will be enjoying something mindless and fluffy. This is anything but.
The theme is passion, though when we first meet our heroine, Portia (Tina Fey), her life is totally lacking in it. She has spent 16 years as an admissions officer at Princeton, her first and only job out of college, and 10 years living with the Chair of the English Department (Michael Sheen), a man who tends to pat her on the head and tell her how reliable she is. Even in bed. She calls it a simple life, and a welcome one after being raised by a radical (Lily Tomlin) with a violent antipathy against structure of any kind, or of being dependent on anyone. Portia is coasting through life unruffled and unengaged until life comes calling for her to take a more active role, and life is not being dainty about it.
It starts when her hopes for taking over the admissions department when the current possessor of that office (Wallace Shawn) retires are running on schedule, though with a few curves thrown by her rival for the job (Gloria Reuben). Desperate to find a potential applicant so brilliant that she will ace the promotion, she finds instead Jeremiah, (Nat Wolff). He’s a true genius, but an oddball one about to graduate from a progressive school that emphasizes animal husbandry as well as erudition. She also meets John (Paul Rudd), Jeremiah’s teacher and a compulsive do-gooder intent on having Princeton accept the boy despite a sketchy academic record and none of the usual extra-curricular activities that assure consideration to the Ivy League.
Despite a career of professional detachment, Portia begins to emotionally invest in getting Jeremiah accepted, and to do a different sort of emotional investment with John. It’s the first glimpse of real passion she’s had in a long time, and it doesn’t exactly unhinge her, but it does unnerve her.
Fey is flawless as a stickler for rules, order, and over-rehearsed patter whose desperation to maintain an even keel at all times results in puckishly inappropriate behavior when things start to fall apart. The comic timing is acute and perfectly calibrated, never going for the obvious laugh when there is a more clever chortle to be had. She also shows a keen sense of Portia’s underlying, ongoing unhappiness, allowing it to poke through with a slightest twist of her mouth into a frown, or a sudden, swift, and slight pitch of her shoulders into a hunch, or the savagely measured way she trims the bonsai tree she keeps on her immaculately tidy desk. Yet there is never a moment when Fey, or Portia, loses her dignity, a tough trick to pull off when one scene calls for Portia to assist in delivering a calf. Director Paul Weitz has the excellent sense to let Fey work her magic without precious quick cutting or other distracting camera tricks. She is the heart of the film and he knows it.
The script lets the audience glimpse what’s going on in Portia’s mind with a clever externalization of the student applicants appearing in Portia’s office as she reads their files and makes her decisions. Despite following the directives, there is an unguarded kindness beneath the cool exterior explaining why they have been denied, and an equally unguarded relief when accepted.
By the end of ADMISSION, everything has been questioned, including the real measure of intelligence, the true worth of a first-rate college education, and a working definition of family that welcomes big, scary emotions instead of a smothering, even smug sameness. It’s a sly little film that takes its time, and is worth the wait.