Film Review: Admission

One of the best comedies in a while, this bracingly smart, affecting romp is that rare Hollywood screen farce which doesn’t insult your intelligence and should find wide appeal.

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a very tightly wound Princeton University admissions officer, lives a life that seems as fully pressured as any of the desperately hopeful students she deals with. Her superiors are bent upon keeping the school’s number of applicants at an impressive high, sending her out to various high schools to recruit. While at an alternative academy, she meets John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a former college classmate with very individual ideas about education. His favorite student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), also gains Portia’s interest, not only for his quirky mind but also for the fact that he just may be the child she once gave up for adoption. Soon, her entire ordered life is blown apart by something she’s long been a stranger to: real human emotion.

With Admission, Fey proves herself an actress capable of sketching an onscreen character who, though she may bear superficial similarities to her febrilely intelligent yet always screwing-up, quite wonderful Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” is nonetheless a completely original, empathetic conception. There’s no conspiratorially funny winking at the audience and we get deeply caught up in her complex situation.

Admission is one of the most enjoyable comedies to come out of Hollywood in a while, largely because it shows people actually working at something, with the humor and drama stemming from their occupations rather than semi-lame wisecracks by layabouts, as you wonder how the hell they afford their apartments and lifestyles. Working from a sharp script by Karen Croner (based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2009 novel), Paul Weitz directs his strongest effort yet, with a keen eye, as always, to youthful foibles, whatever the age of those who commit them. The fast pace and elegant photography also help, as do certain inspired, surreal fillips, like showing the various college hopefuls as their applications are being reviewed in the sequestered rooms, many of them falling through trapdoors as they are handily rejected.

The casting is impeccable, and the comic fruit delivered by Weitz’s actors is succulent indeed. Rudd, who may be the most overexposed actor in film today, redeems himself after the cloying This Is 40 with his most heartfelt, affecting performance in ages (although I could have done without his “adorable” little African-American son). Wolff is highly appealing, making Jeremiah’s arcane mind and esoteric projects a fertile source of surprise and interest. (I loved his puppet show.) Lily Tomlin is also given a juicy role as Portia’s unregenerate counterculture Mom, whose ubiquitously rebellious ways have created more constriction than liberation in her daughter’s life and their relationship; this beloved comedienne, obviously overjoyed at this chance, runs with it. Michael Sheen is hilariously odious as Portia’s erstwhile lover, who coldly dumps her and then refuses to disappear from her life. Gloria Reuben makes a snippily officious meal of her part as Portia’s bane, a highly competitive admissions officer. Even Wallace Shawn finds an appropriate outlet for his oft-seen hedgehog persona as their demanding boss.