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.
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.
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.