The new Tina Fey/Paul Rudd vehicle “Admission” has split audiences right down the middle. The last figures were 48% against versus 42% for this romantic dramedy about life as an admissions counselor at Princeton, where 26,241 students apply but only 1,308 will be accepted. (“Many are called, but few are chosen.”)
Complaints about the film?
It is being marketed as a comedy, when it is not truly a comedy. (One reviewer called it “the movie where Tina Fey talks to a cow”). The critics say that Tina Fey is better on the small screen than she has proven to be on the big screen. The consensus? She should write her own films, rather than depending on the comedic talent of other writers—especially if the book the film is based upon (Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel) wasn’t originally intended to be “funny,” at all, but was supposed to be poignant.
Okay. I have to give them that point.
BUT, purely as a marketing ploy, if you had Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in your cast, wouldn’t you want to try to publicly play up their considerable reputations for comic relief, inserting as much comedy into your drama as you could? And, really, is there any harm in that as long as there are some laughs? And maybe there’ll be some touching life lessons to pass along? (That’s my current defense of the film. So far, I’m sticking with it.)
The plot: a college admissions officer goes to bat for the child she secretly gave up for adoption years ago, trying to get him into Princeton where she is an admissions counselor. The young man didn’t get very good grades, and his only extra-curricular activity seems to be a cheesy ventriloquist act. But, according to the founder of a sort of Berkeley-in-the-60s school (Paul Rudd as John Pressman), young Jeremiah Bullocky (well-played by Nat Wolff) deserves admission to highly selective Princeton simply because, “He likes learning for the sake of learning.” So what if Jonathan got “D’s” and “F’s” in school and never took part in any extra-curricular activities! Portia Nathan should bend every rule and even break into the college in the dead of night, if necessary, to insure that she has belatedly done right by this young man she abandoned at birth.
And I should have gone to Stanford when they accepted me, because the primary purpose of an Ivy League education (the one I could have had at the Harvard of the West) is to make Skull-and-Crossbones-like connections that will serve one well later in life. When I got that full-ride scholarship to the state school (the University of Iowa) and said I wanted to “write” for a living, Mom and Dad cheaped out. All I got was the lousy tee shirt that says, “Iowa.”
Because reality does come into play (in real life) in budgeting, but not in this movie. An important point to be made here is that young Jonathan doesn’t seem to have applied anywhere else except Princeton. Such short-sighted non-planning makes it harder to justify the instant admission pass to Princeton. Jonathan is putting all his eggs in one basket, to cite the old cliché (who’s quibbling this close to Easter?)
Let’s not forget that the likelihood that Jonathan’s parents could afford this elite school, even with Jonathan on scholarship, is slim to none. But, other than the objection that it isn’t very “fair” to the many other students who worked hard all 12 years in school, slaving towards the day they’d apply for Ivy League schools, while Jonathan might coast in primarily because he was abandoned at birth and Portia Nathan now feels guilty—well, are those good reasons to deny a brilliant budding ventriloquist?
I enjoyed all of the performances in the film, although Lily Tomlin may have been slightly over-the-top. I learned much about the admissions process at Ivy League schools and, since Janet Lavin Rapelye, (Princeton’s Dean of Admissions), actually appears in the film, the process (supervised by Wallace Shawn as Clarence Hall) must have been researched intensively.
I even liked the concept of an imaginary chute through which the rejected applicants drop after being given a thumbs down by the committee—with the student, himself or herself, shown as actually being in the room during the discussion. This scene seemed like something that Academy-award nominated director Paul Weitz would create. Weitz directed “About A Boy,” but he also directed “Meet the Fokkers.”
Why is the film taking a critical drubbing 48% of the time?
High expectations for Tina Fey might be one reason. There are many fans who feel this movie is not hilarious enough for the “30 Rock” star. These are the same nay-sayers who point out that the script by Karen Croner was based on a book that was not meant to be laugh-out-loud funny as much as it was meant to be poignant—in the same fashion as “About a Boy” (the Hugh Grant vehicle which Paul Weitz directed to a much warmer critical reception).
The pairing of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd was and is a great idea. Both do a great job, in my humble opinion. Tina’s talking to a cow during a (somewhat gross) birthing scene on the campus of the “alternative” school run by Rudd was not as offensive as the snooty Princeton alum (who dissed it in the Atlantic) made it sound. But, then, I’m a Midwesterner and we like cows. We might even talk to them in a situation like the birthing scene Tina finds herself inadvertently involved in; probably not a lot of cows in New York City, I’m guessing.
The funny lines—and there are some—come, for example, when Tina takes the young man who may (or may not) be her son to a drugstore to buy a toothbrush. While engrossed in nervous small talk with the lad, she offers him a Thomas the Tank Engine toothbrush, causing him to say, “I don’t think I need that one, as much as I do appreciate Thomas, the Tank Engine.” Phrases like “Enough Crazytown” and “From the Island of Misfit Toys” are also sarcastically humorous.
But then we have serious statements of individualistic independence (from Pressman: “I reject being put into a box.”) Apparently, John Pressman rejects being put into a permanent location for more than a year, also, as he has been globe-trotting with his adopted black Uganda(n) son Nathan for the same 16-year-period that Portia Nathan has been serving as admissions officer at Princeton. Portia tells Nelson that she is “boring,” to which he replies, “At your age, you’re supposed to be boring.”
So, okay. This IS a comedy, because that was a funny line…in a sort of Woody Allen-ish small smiling way. So, comedy then. Or romance? No— wait. Drama, because there are observations about parenting like, “As far as I can tell, parents exist just to drive their kids insane.” On the comedy side, when Portia is pressed into unexpected service as a babysitter to three small toddlers (who do not respond well), there’s the line, “They’re like pitbulls. They can smell fear.”
So, comedy then?
But wait: here’s Portia manipulating the other members of the admissions committee by insincerely and sycophantically sucking up to one and all, insincerely pretending to be distraught over the break-up of her relationship with Michael Sheen, and bleating about “sisterhood” to Corinne, the other admissions counselor who will be her chief competition for the plum position Wallace Shawn now holds when he retires at the end of the year. The “I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-mine” political gaming bothered me. It always bothers me, but especially when the character is supposed to be a straight arrow and then goes on to prove she is not in so many ways that it isn’t even funny.
Which, come to think of it, is the main complaint about the film amongst that 48% who have reported their feelings on various sites like “Rotten Tomatoes” and IMDB.
A film with a split personality? Is the film bi-polar? Call it what you will, but the plot’s funny lines are offset by lines like the one from Portia’s fellow admissions officer, Corinne, who says, “People are all pigs.”
Okay. Not funny. Sounded harsh, to me. No sweet center there from Corinne (Gloria Reuben), Portia’s fellow admissions counselor and arch-rival.
Then there’s the back-story of Paul Rudd’s parents. The absence of information on John Pressman’s father, by contrast with the time spent on his eccentric mother puzzled me. What did John Pressman’s (Rudd’s) father do for a living? When Tina asks about John’s father, he responds: “He died a few months ago.” This is tossed off as though completely unimportant.
It took me a good 3 years (6 total) to completely recover from the death of each of my parents (who died 17 years apart). Maybe I’m slow on the healing front, but “a few months” and Pressman is completely oblivious to the loss of his dad—or seems to be? I found this particular facet of Rudd’s otherwise warm and fuzzy personality off-putting and odd. Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive, but it felt as though only the eccentric weirdo parents would get screentime, yet the film wanted to make some serious points about parenting.
Your parents are normal? Go to the back of the line. Wait in the hall. Normal or ordinary parents should be neither seen nor heard. We only are given one set (Jonathan’s adoptive parents) and they barely rated a line.
John Pressman’s mother (Lisa Emery) is weird. She is shown hosting a lavish garden party with catered tents on what looks like a large estate. Her politically incorrect racist jockey statues offend Lily Tomlin’s feminist mom, Susannah Nathan. The Widow Pressman has a “dove room.” [What’s that all about?] All I learned about Paul Rudd’s father is that dear old dad used to wear navy blue blazers with gold buttons and he’s dead. (He may have been normal; hence, no screentime.)
What did Pressman, Senior, do to make all that money? And what did he die from? And why is John Pressman so seemingly unaffected by his father’s recent death? Don’t know. Can’t tell you. The plot introduced Mrs. Pressman and played her for laughs. She provided comic relief, complaining about her son’s rootless tendencies— (Tina Fey describes Rudd as leading “a rootless and impulsive life”) — and bemoaning his failure to go to law school after he finished college at Dartmouth (where he was a classmate of Portia’s).
And th-th-th-that’s all Folks. No more about Mom or Dad Pressman. Not a flakey parent? You need not apply for screentime.
The entire pivotal plot point (a spoiler which I will not reveal) regarding what John Pressman thinks he knows from his years spent dating Portia Nathan’s roommate, Shelly: well, let’s just say that if he had pulled that well-meaning but moronic, misinformed stunt on me or anyone I know, there’d be hard feelings afterwards.
Tina Fey’s character (Portia Nathan) has a long-time rocky relationship with her liberal feminist mother (Lily Tomlin). Lily spouts things like, “You were fearless. You were born an Amazon.” She tells her daughter, “You forgot one important thing on your way to self-empowerment.” That thing is, “And now you need to go out and fall in love with yourself. Depending on other people is not healthy.” That’s as close as Susannah Nathan comes to being compassionate or supportive after Portia’s ten-year relationship to Mark, the philandering college English professor, goes asunder.
Portia (Tina Fey) is obviously very angry at her mother for a great number of things. They finally have a very serious and very unfunny encounter where Portia tells Susannah why she is angry. The laughs in this scene did not come fast and furious. I like it when truths are articulated—if they are universal truths. I got the feeling that there aren’t that many Susannah Nathans in the world. As portrayed by Lily Tomlin, she may be One of a Kind (and reminiscent of Glenn Close, Garp’s mom.)
We’re told early on that Portia is not the sort of woman who wanted children. Nor is her live-in boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen, head of the English department) when we first see them as a couple. Mark turns to out to be a cad, impregnating another woman (Helen, Sonya Walger) with twins and dumping poor old Portia, a scene that rings truer to “30 Rock” or “Saturday Night Live” than to this film. Afterwards, every time Mark and Portia’s paths cross, she is distraught, either in tears or throwing up. The running gag is that Mark thinks it is because of him, when it is not. I found those scenes amusing. Others, I gather, did not.
The film goes off on tangents that are aimed at humor, but it can’t resist poignant “About a Boy”-like observations about parenting, college admissions, living life independently, and other serious topics. And that’s where the trouble starts.
This movie can’t decide whether it is a duck or a swan.
On the plus side, the music was outstanding, as helmed by Stephen Trask. Two songs, in particular: “Lucky” (“Life is just a dream; lucky you. Lucky, lucky me.”) and “Shine Right Through.” The actors all perform up to the material. The setting (kudos to Princeton—especially those male singers stationed under the arch for reasons that made no sense) is properly academic. The laughs—and there are some laughs—are not “Bridesmaids” or “This is 40” funny, but there are amusing moments, nonetheless.
It’s the best new funny movie out there during this bleak period of the year, when all the good movies have been released and we are stuck with nothing new. I’ll take this one and enjoy the laughs and truths it offers, wondering what happened to poor old Mr. Pressman and hoping that Lily Tomlin doesn’t go off on “the train story” again.
So, what do you want from your March movie? You’ve got a movie with a personality disorder. (Split personality? Bi-polar? Seasonal affective disorder?) It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s poignant. It’s serious. It’s a romance. It’s a drama. It is what it is. It may need therapy.
Deal with it.