Let's not kid ourselves about this. Part of consuming Hollywood entertainment is that, on some level, we like these people. It's strange, but I probably like Tina Fey and Paul Rudd more than actual live humans I've met and have to deal with on a regular basis. Yes, I recognize that I only know them through the characters they play (and that includes their "as themselves" appearances on Letterman's couch or the Golden Globes stage) but their finely sculpted personas of vibrant, clever, likable people automatically gives them lift in any project they choose. When they star together in 'Admission' - a romantic comedy that is just a little bit smarter than the other leading brands - and one where they find a degree of happiness together, well, this puts the movie far off the likability charts.
I call 'Admission' a romantic comedy because labels are often necessary; this is a relationship comedy. There is romance in the picture, but leave it to the palatable progressivism of Tina Fey to jerk the tears not by finding a man, but by finding herself.
Fey's Portia seems, at first, to love her life, but maintains a busy routine to keep her from recognizing that she is an emotionally stunted woman. She's a top level admissions gatekeeper at Princeton University, a position she's had since her own graduation. She lives in an enriched but sexless home with Michael Sheen who, it turns out, has impregnated a Virginia Woolf scholar from the English department. Fey's boss (Wallace Shawn) has announced this will be his last year, so the push is on to find the best students ever this term.
On her recruitment drive through the prep schools of New England, she accepts an invitation to pop in at an unconventional school for independent thinkers (classes include, it would appear, calving) and that's where she meets the wanderlust-driven Paul Rudd. More importantly she meets Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is a polymath, an autodidact and all sorts of other big words that mean he's spent his whole life being an outcast but with the right guidance (as he's just getting now) he has the potential in him to be the next Einstein/Mozart/Obama/Roddenberry or anything else he wants to be. He is also, Rudd has uncovered, the child left up for adoption by a friend of the girl he dated in college: and that is Tina Fey.
This news hits Fey in unexpected ways. She's still trying to figure out her relationship with her own mother, an arch (and hilarious) feminist played by Lily Tomlin. With her Bella Abzug tattoo, posters of fish riding bicycles, opt-in double mastectomy and sex positive attitude, Tomlin grabs onto this character that could just be a one-note cliche and, with a warmth that is rarely verbalized, turns it into something true and wonderful.
That's a description that can be applied to all of 'Admission.' Once the logline presents itself, the movie and the well-developed characters are happy to riff on this in believable ways.
Okay, mostly believable. The gag about Fey buying Jeremiah a SpongeBob toothbrush, albeit funny, is a little too daffy for someone so smart. Also, and this really bugged the hell out of me, Rudd's leftwing learning compound is somewhere in New Hampshire. Princeton, last I checked, is in Central Jersey. And yet everyone zooms between the two like it's a trip to the neighborhood CVS. If it happened once, I'd forget it - but it happens a number of times and, maybe just because I'm crazy, I started fidgeting in my seat muttering "it's at least a six-hour drive!"
This doesn't change my ultimate opinion of the movie because it is, as I knew it would be, likable. There's an honesty in the script, Paul Weitz' direction and in all the performances that refuses to talk down to the audience. It's a happy ending (it's actually a perfect ending) but it doesn't wrap everything up in a preposterous bow. These characters deserve better than that and this movie has the decency to admit that.
'Admission' opens in theaters on March 22.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.