For many high school seniors — and for even more of their parents — getting into a good college is the be-all and end-all of their existence. In this effort, college admissions officers are the opponents, seeming less like gatekeepers and more like goalies bent on rejecting all comers. Admission asks us to take a look from the other side, from the perspective of an admissions officer at Princeton, and then proceeds to build a relatively straightforward — though well-executed — romantic comedy around her.
The admissions officer is Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), and she’s poised to take over the department when its head (Wallace Shawn) retires at the end of the year. That is, if rival officer Corinne (Gloria Reuben) doesn’t outshine her. Portia stands a good chance, though, as she lives and breathes admissions; she has no children of her own, and her ten-year relationship with the chair of the English department (Michael Sheen) is going nowhere.
But on a tour of high schools in the northeast region she covers, Portia stops at one particular new alternative high school at the behest of one former Dartmouth classmate, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). “Quest” is an alternative school, so it’s not clear why anyone there would be particularly interested in Princeton, of all universities. But one is: Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a self-described autodidact with atrocious grades but phenomenal test scores, and the rare sort who immediately recognizes the etymology of her name.
Initially, Portia wishes Jeremiah luck and offers him generic advice, but there’s more going on. Since her flighty, radical-feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) is renovating her old bedroom — did I mention that this school just happens to be right near her mother’s house, and both of them are in some area of New Hampshire that’s just a stone’s throw from Princeton? — Portia is driven out to dinner with John. It turns out he’s not actually trying to seduce her; he has reason to believe that Jeremiah is actually her son that she gave up for adoption in college. Portia panics and retreats to Princeton, just in time for her boyfriend to leave her for a knockout of a colleague (Sonya Walger), which drives her right back towards John and Jeremiah, and an attempt to somehow get this kid who looks terrible on paper past the rest of the Princeton admissions board.
Jean Hanff Korelitz’ novel was adapted by Karen Croner, but this has About a Boy director Paul Weitz written all over it. It’s a bit of a disappointment that we yet again have a capable, professional woman feeling incomplete without either a man or child, but it’s at least plausible that someone might feel conflicted and confused about having given up a baby. And the script isn’t dumb, either; the obvious tension between conventional Portia and free-spirit John is tied to their respective issues with her free-spirit mother and his conventional parents. And this is then echoed with a vein of wild-versus-tame language imagery running through the whole thing: “raised by wolves”; Portia’s boyfriend treating her like a faithful dog; the interloping professor specializes in Virginia Woolf.
Fey and Rudd are always charming, of course, and that goes a long way in making this movie work. It may not hold up perfectly if examined close-up, but it’s always enjoyable to watch them work. As to the surprise in some quarters that Tina Fey would peel out of 30 Rock with such a traditionally feminine role, well, I won’t begrudge her not being a front-line feminist icon all the time.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.