Focus Features (2013) 107 min. PG-13
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenplay: Karen Croner; based on novel Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Cinematography: Declan Quinn; Editing: Joan Sobel
Production Design: Sarah Knowles; Set Decoration: Susan Perlman
Costumes: Aude Bronson-Howard; Score: Stephen Trask
Stars: Tina Fey (Portia Nathan), Paul Rudd (John Pressman), Michael Sheen (Mark), Lily Tomlin (Susannah), Wallace Shawn (Clarence), Nat Wolff (Jeremiah), Gloria Reuben (Corinne), Olek Krupa (Professor Polokov), Travaris Spears (Nelson)
The way I happened across this Tina Fey-Paul Rudd romantic comedy about a Princeton admissions officer whose life turns upside down after the baby she gave up for adoption nineteen years ago reappears as a flaky, alternative undergrad applicant, was by comic mishap itself. I had gone to the movies planning to see the 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, but was handed a ticket for the wrong theater. Rather than rudely walking out when the mistake became apparent, I figured I’d give it a few minutes and make my exit when Admission became too intolerable and the audience too absorbed in proceedings to notice the departure. But fate works in mysterious ways. Once the movie had wrapped I found myself not only having forgotten about T-Rex, but wishing Hollywood had been overrun by a herd of Tina Fey.
Adapted by Karen Croner from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, Admission is about a mother who takes desperate measures, proving no high crime beneath her, to get her son accepted into the Ivy League. It is a (slightly) more adult variation on such sophomoric comedies as Accepted, How High and Orange County which also featured Lily Tomlin and starred Colin Hanks, Hollywood’s own version of legacy (he’s Tom Hanks’ son). In sentiment Admission shares an affinity with such counter culture comedies as The Paper Chase, where kids were practically killing themselves to hack it in college. A comedy about being admitted to an institution of higher learning should be intellectually stimulating on some level itself, and happily Admission, while succumbing to some unfortunate romcom clichés, has been cleverly written for the most part.
Director Paul Weitz pulled out of Hugh Grant one of his finest performances over a decade ago in About a Boy and he shows a similar knack in Admission for tapping into the comic absurdity of grownups who behave like children. Admission begins with a similar premise, in which a self-absorbed adult is confronted with the unexpected responsibility of a child whose presence serves to bring out their finer qualities. Fay’s Portia Nathan is a workaholic married to her job who responds to the question of whether she has kids with a curt ‘no,’ then quickly recovering herself, follows up with that patented line from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, “Yes, hundreds.” She considers all the kids whose Princeton applications she rifles through (and predominantly rejects) as her metaphorical ‘children,’ stand ins for the child she ‘rejected’ by giving up for adoption when she was still a teenager. Jeremiah’s unexpected reappearance in her life allows her to stop using his fellow applicants as proxy.
Much amusement is initially derived from mocking Portia’s woeful lack of mothering instinct. This precise, punctual perfectionist is so unmaternal she can’t even keep a plant alive, killing her bonsai through over watering and pruning (she couldn’t leave it be) which makes us suspect she’s correct to consider herself unprepared for parenthood. She likewise makes a mess of babysitting her neighbor’s kids, and the pregnancy of her former lover’s mistress (twins to double the insult), is a blatant affront to her own barrenness. After her grown son shows up however, Portia’s biological clock starts ticking away like a time bomb. As in Baby Mama, the movie she made with Golden Globes co-host Amy Poehler, she goes gaga over the goo-goos, and it’s hilarious watching her spontaneously start commiserating with fellow mothers she runs across in the street, on campus, even horrified strangers in the supermarket.
It’s as if discovering she has a college age son suddenly imbued her with profound wisdom and insight she can share with other women. She wants into the babysitter’s club as badly as Jeremiah wants into Princeton. It’s the parents here who are looking for kids to fill their emotional void, far more so than their adopted kids are looking for parents to complete them. Like so many other movies of recent vintage, Admission wants to stress the fact that in our increasingly diverse society, families are what you make them, that the old nuclear model no longer applies. Paul Rudd’s John Pressman worries that he’s a failure as a father because his own adopted son Nelson (Travaris Spears) seems to be rejecting all the solid values he’s trying to instill in him, growing into the opposite of the man he wanted him to be.
If Pressman weren’t such an overgrown kid himself, he’d know that the last thing in the world children want is to be like their parents. It’s the reason why John himself has turned his back on the privileged lifestyle he was born into and his society mother still tastelessly flaunts. Portia’s similar determination to reject everything her militantly feminist, aging hippie mother represents is the primary reason she has grown into such a conservative stuffed shirt. She’s become a button down endorser of the status quo, a walking doormat for men and a tool of the man, just to stick it to her stridently independent, anti-establishment mom played by Lily Tomlin.
Living alone in the woods like the crazy witch her daughter calls her, Tomlin’s Susannah has erected her own walls to deny others admission. She maintains a Spartan existence in an attempt to live by the creed she foists upon Portia, concerning women being self-sufficient and not needing to rely on anyone, which has resulted in her becoming a hermetically sealed hermit. Portia’s mother is so committed to being autonomous, proving capable of taking care of herself, she doesn’t want anything or anyone dependent on her, not her daughter, not even her pets, who she refuses to feed, under the assumption that keeping them lean and mean will encourage them to fend for themselves.
She’s so resolutely non-conformist, she insists her daughter call her by her first name so as not to encourage the traditional mother-daughter paradigm. This is the finest big screen showcase Tomlin has had in years, but for some reason the director undermines the comedian, with her long, lorn, equine features, by permitting her to look loco when she stops Portia’s departing car to make her own distraught admission at the end. And for all its pro-feminist agit-prop (or because of it?) the movie seems to have it in for the female bosom, telling us Susannah received a double mastectomy then making funny by showing her slipping padding to be uneven and droopy. Later Portia, upon learning that her lover is leaving her for another woman, tries to maintain her poise at a party, while working out her rage skewering the chicken breasts she’s serving guests.
Her feminist mother never bothered marrying Portia’s father because she didn’t consider a man a necessity in a woman’s life in order to have a family. But the emotional lack Portia felt growing up in large part is what influenced her against similarly trying to raise a child on her own. It’s also why as an adult she remains so eager for men’s acceptance. Wondering about the father she never knew, Portia muses “maybe he’s president, well… obviously not that…” This woman named after Shakespeare’s Portia for her intelligence has, as her mother points out, never valued herself highly enough or striven to reach her full potential. She attended Dartmouth instead of Princeton herself, and works as a lowly Admissions Officer rather than an esteemed instructor at this bastion of intellectualism.
Surrounded by tenured professors and woolly headed academics, she’s never tried asserting her own intelligence in any serviceable capacity despite the setting. And Portia’s a pushover for Michael Sheen’s shameless Mark, with whom she’s been living for years without ever insisting he make the sort of commitment that Virginia Woolf scholar he takes up with unequivocally demands. The movie derives too much enjoyment from debasing its hapless heroine, subjecting Portia to one humiliation after another in the same way Baby Boom did Diane Keaton, and usually in the vicinity of the worthless Mark, who keeps popping up at the most inopportune moments to rub in the way her life’s falling apart without him. Anything that can go wrong does, and the movie starts feeling more uncomfortably masochistic than amusing. We keep waiting to see Portia stick it to her lout of a lover the same way she did those chicken breasts, but it’s all in vain. When he treats her like a dog (literally!), patting her head and commenting on how she’s man’s best friend, we’re meant to laugh at what a mockery she’s permitting him to make of her, so as not to make waves. But then the director himself turns around and draws a comparison between Portia and the pregnant cow whose calf she helps Pressman deliver, leaving us wondering what precisely is going on here. Much of the movie’s humor is derived from mussing up this straight-laced professional, placing Portia in situations where her ordered perfectionism is forced to give sway to the disheveled demands of life’s organized chaos. And as is typical of such movies, the uptight, high strung careerist is mellowed out by making love. Portia is practically panting for some man to stroll along and sexually fulfill her. When one finally does, in the form of Pressman’s existential, alternative teacher however, Portia’s arch, intellectual pretentiousness causes her to suppress her more physical longings and rebuff him for taking advantage of the fact that she’s on the rebound. But Freudian slips give her away as baldly as discarded banana peels. She complements Pressman (sort of) by telling him he has a nice nose on his face before missing the friendly peck she aims for his cheek, the kiss suddenly veering off in an alarming southward direction and landing square on his lips.
Rudd can, depending on the role, make his fuddy duddy dullardliness seem original and inspired, elevating unpromising slapstick like I Love You Man into pure comic gold. As the bemused do-gooder of Admission, he could best be described as a non-distracting presence. His bemused, man-of-the-people characterization is not unlike his politically involved, cause-committed Clueless character from way back when, only all grown up now and still wielding meritorious influence on the elitist woman in his life. He’s been given only a few inspired moments of lunacy however, one involving a ceramic horse statue he’d diligently carted with him through the Mongolian wastes, and the other with him playing mid-wife to that cow after watching one of those criminally simplified how-to videos on the net (we’ve all been there).
We initially harbor reservations about Rudd’s being cast as Galahad after he lures Portia to his backwater collective and lets his kids treat her so cruelly, despite the valid points they raise (she defends herself impressively and deserves the standing ovation he gives her). But the revelation about Jeremiah at the end practically does the character in, making it seem as though Pressman had just been using Portia from the outset, stringing her along to get his protégé into Princeton. This revelation of Jeremiah’s true heritage cripples the comedy, leaving it limping to its conclusion. Not just because too many motivations in Admission are revealed to have hinged on a misconception but because it leads one to feel as if Portia had been used by Pressman (and Jeremiah), just as she was trying to move past the point where she’d allow herself to be dumped on by men like Mark.
The heart and soul of the movie involves hidebound Portia progressively tearing down the emotional walls she’s erected around herself after Jeremiah’s application lands across her desk. His request for admission to the highly selective Princeton inspires her to become more open and accepting herself. She starts dismantling her barbed defenses, while simultaneously questioning the Ivy League’s own unscalable edifice, the high hurdles Princeton has set in place in the interest of keeping out what it considers the riffraff, the wrong sort. Only the best and brightest are granted admittance to this sacrosanct sanctuary of scholarship. With its 8% admission rate the lowest in the country, undesirables are dropped through the trap door into oblivion.
Portia’s office, while ostensibly dedicated to admissions, is instead completely sealed from the outside world. ‘No Access’ signs make it clear it’s off limits, for employees only. Portia herself totes around ‘Do Not Disturb’ placards, hanging them on her door as if they expressed her personal mantra. She even suggests to an ideally cast Wallace Shawn’s Dean of Admissions that they hire a guard to make security even tighter. She’s set up specific boundaries for herself in work and in life that are soon to be breached and her ordered, conventional world turned on its head. Eradicating her own marginalization by opening herself up becomes symptomatic of democratic due process, the sort such elitist institutions systematically sidestep with their unrealistic application screenings. The all-embracing Admission advocates breaking down these arbitrary, academically-imposed class barriers.
But truth be told, Jeremiah’s mom has been at Princeton sixteen years so he gets past the gate for the same nepotistic reasons any rich son of an alumnus would. He’s her legacy and Admission’s script fails to clearly differentiate how Portia slipping him through the proper channels because she works on the inside is meant to be seen as morally superior to some worthless scion of the rich getting in because of his familial connections. All parents believe their kids are special but Portia is not fool enough to read great things into Jeremiah because of his autodidactism. She’s not helping him because she truly believes in his potential (despite Pressman’s recommendation, nothing Jeremiah shows us justifies such high regard so we can’t really believe in him either), but because she thinks he’s her son.
So much of the movie’s success hinges on actor Nat Wolff persuading us that Jeremiah is truly exceptional and gifted in all the unexpected ways that impressed mentor Pressman. But whatever the kid has never manages to come across on screen, so we must suspend our disbelief and accept that there’s something special about him that we’re just not seeing. Like those members of the admissions board whose died in the wool opinions his mother fails to change, Admission doesn’t effectively sway us either. So we fail to see why this slacker should get in, be given such a golden chance when many other kids have worked much harder for the opportunity. His autodidactism ends us being treated as a form of special privilege itself, worthy of handing him the keys to the kingdom.
But if a nebbish like Jeremiah can’t get into Princeton on his own cognizance, how in the world did Jesse Eisenburg’s Steve Zuckerburg get into Harvard in The Social Network? Though the revelation at the end that mother and son are not related strains credibility and feels dramatically contrived, it purifies what Portia does, drains her actions of their own nepotistic taint. Since her attempt to get Jeremiah admitted ultimately proves futile, we’re left to assume the script has her going through the motions simply in order to open her eyes to the inequity that undermines admission to the Ivy League. It serves to draw her attention to the more insidious issue at hand here, namely that the institutionalized exclusionism of schools like Princeton goes against the grain of the all-inclusive democratic ideals on which this country was founded.
Higher education has become the last acceptable stronghold of American elitism and it is a problem Portia, as an admissions officer is part of and serves to propagate. Working in her capacity places Portia in an impervious position. Playing judge, jury and executioner allows her to feel in total control, as though her past were safely behind her. Completely in charge behind that desk, she’s no longer the scared expectant mother living over a garage she recalls herself as being. It takes Portia’s life spinning out of control again for her to realize what being in such a position of power actually entails. “I’ve spent the last sixteen years passing judgment on kids who are a lot more together than I was at that age.” Asking what right she has to do so is really asking what right any admissions officer has to do so, and hence calling into question the admissions process itself.