“I’m not really your typical student. My brain sort of goes on a little walkabout.”
—Jeremiah (Nat Wolff)
I was pretty stunned maybe 20 minutes into Admission, in which there are no shootouts and no national monuments or institutions are destroyed—well, maybe Princeton—before I realized that it wasn’t really the movie I thought I had been sold by the trailers I had seen.
Said trailers are loaded with cutesey banter between Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, two of moviedom’s cutest thirty-to-forty-somethings, and not only are they cute, but so is old hand Lily Tomlin as Tina’s cranky and eccentric mom—and did I mention cute, in a septuagenarian sort of way—always good for a laugh or two when the romantic comedy starts to wear thin, except there’s one problem.
This isn’t really a romantic comedy. Wasn’t even meant to be.
Yes, Tina and Paul DO make a cute couple, but that’s only maybe one third of the plot of director Paul Weitz’s adaptation of author Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, and if I’d read the book, I bet I’d have known that, but I didn’t. Thus, I’m just like probably 98 percent of the audience: I have no familiarity with nor expectation from the material, other than what I glean from the trailers, and what I glean from the trailers is that Admission is a romantic comedy in which straightlaced Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Fey), invited to review collegiate candidates from an unconventional prep school, meets dean John Pressman (Rudd), just as unconventional and ill-at-ease with Ivy League protocol as his faculty and students, and you know good and well Portia and John are going to conquer their differences, fall in love, and redefine candidacy for Princeton—especially for Jeremiah, the prodigy John suspects may be the baby Portia put up for adoption when she herself was in college.
Romantic comedy is only the framework for a plot that veers into territory Portia never suspected, and actually ends up being as serious a dissection of parenthood as—well, Parenthood—and in which the romance between Portia and John is more of a gentle respite from the film’s real plot and concerns, and this unforeseen albeit heavier theme thoroughly delighted me.
Admission could have been a simple, cute, romantic comedy and still been an enjoyable picture. Everybody loves Fey and Rudd, especially when they’re essentially playing themselves, and practically anything with Tomlin in it is raised a whole letter grade simply by virtue of her presence. Also providing Fey and Rudd graceful support are Wallace Shawn as Portia’s officious boss, Gloria Reuben as her rivalrous coworker, Michael Sheen as her dismissive boyfriend, Olek Krupa as an academician interested in Portia’s man-hating mom, and Nat Wolff as Jeremiah, whom John believes deserves consideration by Princeton, over academic objections that genius doesn’t make up for mediocre grades and a low social standing.
They could indeed have used the parental and educational backdrops to sell the comedic aspect, but it’s the other way around. It’s the comedy that is used to sell far deeper themes and concerns, and for that, Admission is not only accepted, but graduates with honors.