Admission is an altogether pleasing entry in the romantic comedy genre, with genial, three-dimensional performances from stars Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, and Nat Wolff. It's a no-brainer to finally have two of the most likable comic talents in Hollywood appear opposite each other in a smallish and smart comedy, and although it would be easy for Fey and Rudd to skate by on their respective charms, Admission isn't quite as fluffy as the trailers would have you believe.
The film is bit like director Paul Weitz's 2002 film About A Boy, in that a grown-up is forced by a precocious child to reassess his/her life. In the film, Fey's character Portia Nathan has already been facing some major life changes when she meets an incredibly smart young Princeton hopeful named Jeremiah Balakian (Wolff) whose life she has the power to change. Portia is an admissions officer for Princeton who's spent her whole life trying to be the opposite of her mom Susannah (Tomlin), a first-wave feminist who is as quick to chop her own wood as to wield a shotgun at an unwelcome houseguest. Portia has a passionless relationship with a Princeton professional (Michael Sheen) who awkwardly pats her on the head when she's feeling amorous, but she sucks it up and is happy, more or less. Their Ivory Tower lifestyle of cocktail parties and conferences isn't conducive to having children, something she thought they agreed on until Mark leaves her for his pregnant mistress. Portia is left to find out what she wants for herself, and begins to realize what her dreams don't look anything like she thought.
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Like its title, Admission works on several levels. There is plenty here about motherhood and the many forms it takes, from the interest the admissions officers take in their own applicants to Portia's relationship with Jeremiah. Portia and Susannah's relationship could have been explored more, especially in light of the generation gap between first wave feminists and the women who enjoy the fruits of their labor; it's loaded and bristling with resentment and pain that speaks to the greater political dynamic as much as it does the mother/daughter relationship. There's a slightly mean subplot about workplace politics among women with Portia, her competitive coworker Corinne (Gloria Reuben), and their boss Clarence (Wallace Shawn), and it would have been interesting to explore that dynamic as well, especially since Corinne goes out of her way to point out she's a working mom, which means Portia is saddled with extra work because she has all that extra time what with not being a mother.
Paul Rudd is one of the most charming actors in Hollywood. Pairing him with Fey is a genius move, but a dangerous one. They could have easily fallen into a broad slapstick, but they're actually complimentary, bringing out a warmth and depth that could have easily been overlooked or underplayed. There's even a little touch of About a Boy in Rudd's John Pressman, a former classmate of Portia's who spends his time running around the world to fix other people's problems instead of facing his own. John adopted a kid on his travels, the adorable and, yes, precocious Nelson (Travaris Spears), a relationship that's funny but also quite tender. It's no secret that the yin and yang of John and Portia are meant to balance each other out over the course of the movie, and although things get a bit rushed near the end, it's still sweet to watch it unfurl. Wolff, who used to appear on the kids' show The Naked Brothers Band, is invigorating to watch as an autodidact whom John has taken under wing.
Admission is intricately constructed from the inside out, by which I mean if it had a weaker script or flatter direction or a less talented cast, it would be filed away and forgotten like so many other dusty rom-coms. Luckily, the end product is richer and more nuanced. It's not fair to compare Tina Fey's character Liz Lemon on 30 Rock to Portia, especially since Fey didn't write the script for Admission. The parallels are hard to miss, though, especially given each character's marital status and decidedly ambivalent attitude towards children. (Coincidentally, Sheen also played a Liz Lemon love interest on 30 Rock.) At some point, Liz Lemon became less of an ally to brainy single women and more of a caricature; it didn't feel like she was laughing with the Liz Lemons of the world but more at them. It's hard not to feel a little bitter about it.
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Although Portia is more sympathetic, Fey brings the baggage of Lemon with her to future endeavors, or at least to those roles where she plays brainy single women questioning their childless lives. (Let's not forget that Lemon was married and mommy'd up by the end of the show, either.) At the same time, these questions are relevant to many women's lives. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't; similarly, filmmakers are damned if they do and damned if they don't. At the very least, it's refreshing to see a romantic lead in her thirties treated like an attractive, sexual being instead of a punch line. Susannah is also portrayed as a sexy, beautiful woman that men still flock to, too.
Despite these misgivings, I was won over by Admission, which, frankly, left me a little verklempt by the end.
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Death is a natural part of life. Without one, the other cannot exist. And in 2012, many heavyweights of the entertainment world were lost. Sometimes death can be a moment to mourn those we've lost, but also celebrate their achievements.
Perhaps the most notable death of 2012 was that of Whitney Houston. Houston passed away at age 48 in February of this year, and with her the world mourned. Houston was a true icon in every sense of the word: her voice was like none other in the world, and her death served as a wake-up call to the real dangers of narcotics. It is said that "despite her past personal troubles, she still became one of the most successful and award-winning female artists of all time." Whether on-screen in The Bodyguard and Sparkle, or on-stage at the Grammy Awards, Houston made every moment shine with her golden vocal chords, and her loss will be felt far beyond her 48 years of life.
In August we lost iconic and barrier-breaking female comedian Phyllis Diller. Diller was "often cited as a pioneer of comedy, helping establish women in Hollywood as legitimate stand-up talent." Her work as a female comedian started "in radio in the 50s, before leveraging the appearances into television spots and a full touring career." A feat, no doubt, impressive at any time, but especially while Diller was doing it. During the 60s, Diller starred alongside Bob Hope in 23 television specials and three films.
Another female icon gone too soon was Nora Ephron, a woman who wore many hats, including director, writer, journalist, and more in her impressive career. In our obituary for Ephron, we discussed the "surprisingly diverse and fantastic career," of hers, one "with nary a creative miss on her IMDb page." She wrote and directed some of the most classic romantic comedies out there, including Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, and Julie & Julia, Heartburn, and When Harry Met Sally. "What separated Ephron from her counterparts was not only her distinct sense of humor, but the way that she could create original, complex female characters and put them in traditional movies without making them seem simple or pandering." It is a universal truth that the name Nora Ephron "was a hallmark of the quality that she brought to all of her work."
Hero to space nerds and humans everywhere was Neil Armstrong, who lost a battle with complications from a heart bypass surgery in August. His first steps on the moon were "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" even though, in the end, Armstrong fancied himself "a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job."
A shocking loss was the unexpected death of Green Mile actor Michael Clarke Duncan, who was especially known for his booming voice and hulking stature. But not only that, Duncan was a comedy man. "Duncan's comedic timing coupled with his action-star prowess made him a staple in other films," including Daredevil, a remake of Planet of the Apes, Sin City and animated kids' film Kung-Fu Panda.
One of the longest-running careers in Hollywood was cut short in July when Ernest Borgnine passed away. The charismatic 95-year-old had a career that spanned decades. Six, in fact, "making him an icon of the business, beloved and respected by many." He was mostly-known for his work as a character actor, where "Borgnine made the Hollywood scene his playground, making a name for himself with generally villainous roles. His career-bucking role as a lovelorn butcher in 1955’s Marty won him an Oscar for Best Actor." Other highlights of his career included 1953's From Here to Eternity, and his long-standing run on TV's McHale’s Navy as the title character Quinton McHale.
Author and political and gay activist Gore Vidal left us in July, and with him an iconic voice of truth-telling and honesty in writing. From the plays (and screenplays) of Paris is Burning to his work on Ben-Hur, "Vidal was considered many things outside of his writerly pursuits" and one of his most famous works, The City and the Pillar, is said to be one of the first mainstream American novels to feature overtly gay characters at its center." It was so controversial at the time that The New York Times refused to review it in 1948. His passion for Hollywood and his interests never wained.
Another author, Ray Bradbury lost his life in 2012. Best known for works like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man, "Bradbury gained notoriety around the world as one the 20th century's most important voices in science fiction."
In May, the children's literature world lost the iconic creator of Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, the wildly imaginative voice of growing up everywhere. He was considered "a defining voice in children's literature as both an author and illustrator."
This December, we lost Jenni Rivera, the world-renowned Mexican-American singer and reality star. Rivera had "a wildly popular career as a singer and reality-television star and has sold over 20 million albums worldwide in addition to her mun2 reality series I Love Jenni." Millions of fans the world over mourned her untimely passing in a plane crash. Other iconic musicians to leave too soon included the and-you-don't-stop, intergalatic party-rights-fighter Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys lost his battle with cancer in May. Fans the world over mourned the shocking loss of such a huge player in music and movies, as his Oscilloscope Laboratories is "now one of the most important distributors in the film landscape."
These two heavyweights weren't the only losses in music, which also included such big names as "sitar master and Oscar winner" Ravi Shankar, The Monkees' own lead dreamboat and television star Davy Jones, The BeeGees' founding member Robin Gibb, and At Last crooner Etta James. All of whom made huge marks within their respective genres. The loss of disco diva Donna Summer after a battle with cancer also shook the music world to its core.
In a tragic turn of events, director Tony Scott took his own life in August. Scott "rose to prominence in the 80s with Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II," He had recently co-produced the summer's alien blockbuster Prometheus with his brother," as well as several TV production credits including The Good Wife and NUMB3RS.
Others, including television actors Jack Klugman and William Windom of The Odd Couple and Murder, She Wrote also passed on in the past year. The men were 90 and 88, respectively. Dallas star Larry Hagman died of cancer complications in November, leaving behind a career that included I Dream of Jeannie, numerous stage productions, and several films like 1972's The Blob, and Oliver Stone's Nixon and Primary Colors. The comedian and actor Sherman Hemsley — star of movin' on up The Jeffersons passed away in July.
Sesame Street also lost two of its performers, director Emily Squires and puppeteer Jerry Nelson. Tom Cruise's mother in Risky Business, Janet Carroll also lost a lengthy battle with illness in May.
In the end, death will always be what comes after life, but the contributions of those we lost this year will reverberate within the industry for years and years to come. May they all rest in peace.
[Photo Credit: CHP/FameFlynet Pictures; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Carrie Devorah/WENN; Joseph Marzullo/WENN; WENN]
Follow Alicia on Twitter @alicialutes
Fontella Bass, "Rescue Me" Singer, Dies at 72
Charles Durning, Veteran Character Actor, Dead at 89
Jack Klugman, 'The Odd Couple' Star, Dead at 90
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Chasing Mavericks is one of those hoary "based on a true story" movies that borders on hagiography. It's a fictionalized take on the early life of surfing wunderkind Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) and his attempt with the help of his mentor Frosty (Gerard Butler) to conquer the giant waves known as "mavericks." Although the beaches of North California and their crashing waves are gorgeous the story and the acting don't hold water. Chasing Mavericks is more interested in showing Moriarity to be a hero than an actual person and the movie suffers for it in the end.
Weston plays Moriarity as a 15-year-old and although Weston is still in his early twenties he looks disconcertingly older. The tan make-up doesn't help and neither does his hollow performance which is mostly just him looking wide-eyed and earnest. He's not given much to work with the challenges he has to overcome not given much weight at all. Moriarity's dad left when he was a kid and his mom (Elisabeth Shue) is often drunk and can't keep a job. This could have been an interesting development — Jay has to take care of her and loan her money and lives in what looks like a cubbyhole in the living room — but it's given short shrift. The movie Moriarity patiently does her laundry and wakes her up for work instead of what a normal 15-year-old would do which would probably include at the very least some choice four letter words or acting out. Although his mentoring at the hands of Butler's Frosty does explore some of Jay's pain and fears he's not particularly affected by anything. He just shakes it all off like a shaggy dog who's spent a day at the beach.
Other plot developments are equally toothless and without any real consequence. He has a bully who verbally taunts him but eventually respects him. His best friend is either doing or selling drugs given his shady goings-on and wads of dough in his pocket. Moriarity holds a torch for his childhood friend Kim (Leven Rambin) who is apparently embarrassed to be seen with him but even she isn't all that bad. It's like an after-school special that runs for 105 minutes (but feels much longer).
His crusty mentor Frosty is supposed to be a damaged man whose passion for surfing trumps everything even it seems supporting his family. At one point it's clear he's lied to his wife about going to do construction work but she just sort of shrugs it off. Brenda (Abigail Spencer) knows Frosty's love for the ocean and how it heals him from past tragedies so she mostly tolerates his behavior aside from a few sharp remarks. As his voiceover indicates (delivered by Butler with an accent that goes in and out) these "Children of the Tides" are simply drawn to the ocean even if it kills them. The passion trumps all as it surely did in the life of the real Jay Moriarity.
The footage of the men surfing is the centerpiece of the story which is probably why everything else feels like an afterthought. Even this is uneven though. Some of it is obviously Butler and Weston — Butler was injured on the set while filming a surfing scene — but the faraway shots don't really match up. It's not clear if this is archival footage or if it's just poorly edited and filmed. A few scenes in the movie look startlingly different all cloudy grays with Butler haggard and thinner and although it could be just a really ham-handed way to visually indicate grief this interlude looks like it's from an entirely different movie. A perk of Chasing Mavericks is its "alternative" music soundtrack that is immediately recognizable and surprisingly on point with songs from Mazzy Star Matthew Sweet and the Butthole Surfers popping up at appropriate times.
While surely the people involved in making the film are dedicated to preserving Jay's memory and inspiring others it's hard to take it seriously or be emotionally moved by such a blatantly unblemished portrayal. Real tributes show that grit and shortcomings of their subjects as much as why they're heroes.
The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.
There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles — at one point Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke The Dictator continues the self-reflexive satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion rape feminists body hair race religion politics STDs war crimes ethnic cleansing necrophilia and/or bestiality don't even bother. However if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch but also the funniest.
Alas the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist misogynist rhetoric endlessly and after a while...yeah we get it. However like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that with some exceptions you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op John C. Reilly is a racist security guard and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.