Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Some television celebrities, no matter how talented, simply lack the stature to fit the big screen. Upon the basis of 2010's "Date Night" and her new picture "Admission," I'm afraid Tina Fey falls into the category. I know, there are those who believe she can do no wrong, but she looks undersized up there in a way that only serves to underline the sitcom-y, watch-'em-at-home production values and quality of these movies.
In "Admission," Fey plays Portia Nathan, a 16-year veteran of the Princeton admissions office led by retiring dean Clarence (Wallace Shawn). Portia's primary purview is the Northeast, and on her annual recruiting trip through her sector, she agrees to stop at a new developmental school in the New Hampshire hinterlands, where director John Pressman (Paul Rudd) combines independent study with the operation of a working dairy farm. It's sort of an elhi amalgam of Bennington and Deep Springs; a student might spend third period developing an irrigation system, studying robotics, or helping a cow to calve.
John and his adopted Ugandan son Nelson travel the world, but Nelson likes Portia because she's boringly normal; he wants to stay put in New Hampshire, or somewhere. John pitches Portia on his pet student Jeremiah, a self-labeled autodidact with a D+ GPA but 5's on eight AP tests and a 2360 on his SAT. About midway through the picture, after their second round of canoodling, John drops a bomb on Portia: Jeremiah, who shares certain of her mannerisms and tastes (they both prefer diet soda to regular), may be the son she gave up for adoption back at Dartmouth.
Is Jeremiah Portia's son? More importantly, will he be admitted to Princeton? (The movie's view of higher education is rather insular; Jeremiah claims not to care whether he gets in, because he can always go to another college, like Harvard or Yale.) Will Portia, John and Nelson live happily ever after? I'll give you two guesses and the first doesn't count.
There are about five or six genuine laughs in "Admission," including a couple of big ones. Most come courtesy of Lily Tomlin as Portia's arch-feminist mom, Susannah, who sports a shoulder tattoo of Bella Abzug, doesn't feed her dogs ("They're hunters, they can find their food outside"), and would rather fix the chain brake on a bike than engage in mother-daughter bonding.
Rudd is one of those actors almost everybody likes, but director Paul Weitz has missed a chance here by not sexing him up a bit. In "The Kids Are All Right," director Lisa Cholodenko made Mark Ruffalo's strawberry farmer into an exciting sexual plaything for Julianne Moore (who, after years with Annette Bening, unbuckled Ruffalo's belt, got to the long-forbidden fruit, and yelled, "Well, hello!"). There's no reason Weitz couldn't give Rudd's farmer John the same treatment.
No matter what kind of movie a movie aims to be, it either knows its subject or it doesn't, and "Admission" doesn't know its stuff. It has a tin ear for the way teenagers talk - especially smart ones. (It's the sort of script where none of the characters sound as intelligent as the screenwriter.) It doesn't know how college admissions works. Clarence, the dean, talks about the U.S. News rankings in a way that reflects how people think admissions deans talk rather than how they do. The roundtable reviews of individual applicants have the same ersatz feel.