What’s the secret to getting into Princeton? Straight A’s? A laundry-list-long résumé? Exemplary extracurricular activities? High SAT scores? Writing a great personal essay? Not having an overbearing helicopter parent? Having a mom who works in admissions?
The answer is more or less all the above. At least in Paul Weitz’s comedy “Admission.”
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University. Her job is to drive up and down the Northeast, selling Princeton to eager prospective students. She reads personal essay after personal essay. And she’s been doing this for the past 16 years. When John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the founder of Quest, a high school with its first graduating class, calls Portia and petitions her to deliver her spiel, Portia adds this site to her routine.
But there’s nothing routine about Quest. Portia finds herself at a school in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cows. The students are encouraged to think, and most dismiss Princeton University as a corporate giant, sitting on the same level of evilness as perhaps Exxon or Halliburton.
But 17-year-old Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), an autodidactic whom Portia meets through John, wants to attend Princeton. When John tells suggests that Jeremiah could be the son Portia gave up for adoption on Valentine’s Day years ago, Portia settles on trying to connect with her son through the guise of her Princeton profession.
Fey, known for her role as Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” and her impersonation of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live,” plays her usual awkward on-screen self. She’s frienemies (a term from “Means Girls,” a movie Fey both wrote and starred in) with fellow admissions officer Corinne (Gloria Reuben). In one scene when Portia and Corinne pretend they actually like each other in front of their boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), it’s almost like a watered-down version of Fey and Amy Poehler’s 2008 “Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Skit” on sexism. The tension behind Fey and Reuben’s fake smiles and idle pleasantries is palpable as they consent to their boss’s appeal to work together, but the amiable discomfort between Fey and Poehler was much funnier on TV.
Perhaps the fault is not with the acting, but with the writing. Fey, a former writer on “Saturday Night Live” who plays a head comedy writer on her show “30 Rock,” is very funny. Her autobiographical comedy, “Bossypants,” sold one million copies in the U.S., and topped The New York Times Best Sellers’ Book List for five straight weeks after its release. On the contrary, Karen Croner, responsible for the screenplay to “Admission” — which is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, is not as funny.
“Admission’s” mediocre screenplay seems to rely on schadenfreude; as painful and stressful as the application process is, it’s supposedly hilarious in retrospect because it’s not happening to you. Aren’t you glad you’re not Mrs. Lafont (Ann Harada) and her son in the film’s opening sequence when they get to Princeton’s college tour late? And you’re happy you’re not Portia, right, when she throws up at a college frat party, chasing after a boy who might be her son? While Gary Coleman and Nicky from “Avenue Q” claim “Schadenfreude makes the world a better place,” it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable to watch — especially in a character you’re rooting for.
Through Portia’s sales pitch and Jeremiah’s application process, college admissions seem rife with clichés and ironies, offering the same sage and elusive advice: “be yourself.” For a lost high school senior who hasn’t figured his life, what does that even mean? Are you a pretentious do-gooder whose dreams of saving the world? Or perhaps you’re a legacy who relies on your parents’ money and name? If those are the two types of people who are guaranteed admission, does “being yourself” meaning you’re not granted a spot on the waiting list?
Despite the moral ambiguity, trite and unrealistic nature of the film, there are a few funny moments. Lily Tomlin’s lines and delivery shine as Portia’s blunt, gun-toting, feminist mother, Susannah. “If I had to do what I’m supposed to be doing, like you, I’d kill myself,” Susannah nonchalantly says to Portia in one scene.
“Did you just say that if you were me, you would kill yourself?”
“Portia, don’t exaggerate.”
Well, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that even that isn’t worth the price of admission.
“Admission” was directed by Paul Weitz. The screenplay was by Karen Croner, based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book.