‘Admission’: What’s the point of it all, anyway?

By Gary Clift

It is difficult to categorize the new film “Admission.” And I mean that in a bad way. If we assume that it was intended to be a comedy—and it stars Paul Rudd and Tina Fey, so that assumption is not without basis—it is a complete and utter failure. The movie doesn’t get laughs.

If we think of it as a more serious piece, “Admission” is so scattered that viewers can’t come away from a showing thinking that they know what it was mostly about. Is it about missed chances, about the relationships between parents and children, about the stupid ways American universities pump up their institutional egos, or about how unsure we can be about our lives as we reach middle age?

Well, the movie is about all of those things and, because it can’t spend enough time on any of them, it doesn’t seem to get anything done except to saddle Rudd’s character with a romantic interest, Fey’s character, who is adrift in a sea of denied philosophies. One leaves the theater checking one’s watch.

Directed by Paul Weitz, who gave us “American Pie,” “About a Boy,” “Cirque du Freak,” and “Little Fockers,” “Admission” follows a season in the life of Princeton Admissions Officer Portia (Fey). Her job is to screen applications from potential students. Because the movie is later going to pretend that it is about the corruption of the selection process, the film pretends that the work of the Office has some effect on the school’s U.S. News and World Report rating.

If I remember correctly, those ratings are based on criteria that have nothing to do with the rigors of application screening. They have almost nothing to do with the quality of instruction, either. Percentage of applications rejected is not a reasonable indicator of quality of education offered, obviously. Besides, Admissions doesn’t determine how many students will be let in or much influence how many will apply.

Portia loses her long-time beau, an academic played by Michael Sheen, and at the same time hears she has a chance to become the next Dean. This is the last we hear about her advancement, though Sheen’s character continues to show up in a painful series of “comic” coincidences. Meanwhile Portia has met an old acquaintance from college (Dartmouth). John (Rudd) serves several purposes in her life.

He is a new romantic interest. He is the head of a new “progressive” school from which Princeton is getting applicants. He points out that one of these is a boy, Jerimiah, who may be the child Portia had while in college, the one she allowed to be adopted. And, then, John is himself the adoptive father of a young son who, like all the kids in the film, is a lot more clued in than are the adults, all of whom a foundering.

Portia begins trying to engineer Jerry’s unlikely admission to her institution. For example, she arranges a meeting between her ruthlessly early 70s feminist mom (Lily Tomlin with a Bella Abzug tattoo) and an academic who could recommend the kid.

And that’s about all the movie has to offer. Portia doesn’t know what to say to Jerry. She helps John help one of the progressive school’s cows to calve. She over tends a bonsai tree. She comments on her mother’s oversized breast prostheses. She politics, using some simple psychology, in her department.

When the movie’s over, turn out the lights. Nobody will drive home thinking about the silly way colleges are rated or about how we communicate generation to generation or about anything. And nobody is going to remember anything that made them laugh during the film. So what’s the use of “Admission”? You might well ask.

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