Admission Review: Failing the Entrance Exam For Comedy
It goes without saying that Tina Fey is a national treasure. Her stunningly sharp wit has been a mainstay of American pop culture for more than ten years now thanks to her show-salvaging work on Saturday Night Live and the quirky bliss of 30 Rock. We’ve all laughed at her work at some point or another, whether its from her spot-on turn as Sarah Palin or from the pages of her bestselling book Bossypants, but the key factor to probably 98% of her success though is that she herself wrote whatever it was that made us laugh.
Tina Fey is a superb writer. And because she is a superb writer she doesn’t necessarily have to be a great actress to deliver that writing. I won’t argue that comedic timing isn’t crucial to deliver even the most sharply written piece of comedy – because it is! In addition to being a great writer Fey has some of the most impressive timing skills in the business and when she’s playing a version of herself or Liz Lemon they never let her down. But a rarity in her career thus far has been Fey playing a character from another writer. Even more rare is Fey playing a character from another writer who is…dull.
Enter: Admission written by Karen Croner.
Who is Karen Croner, you might ask? Good question. Karen Croner’s last credited screenplay was 1998′s One True Thing, which garnered Meryl Streep one of her many Oscar nominations but failed to make much of an impression on anyone beyond that. Before that, Kroner cranked out a few TV movie scripts and that’s about it.
I’m sure Ms. Kroner is a charming person and it is not my intent to demean her career thus far, but I mention all of this to kind of set the stage for what to expect with Admission. When we see Tina Fey we tend to expect brutally smart writing to come pouring out of her and now that I know what it’s like when that doesn’t happen, I really don’t want to see it again.
In Admission, Fey plays Portia Nathan, a dedicated admissions officer for Princeton University. She has been on the job for 16 years, is a prime candidate to replace her boss (Wallace Shawn), and lives happily unmarried with her English professor lover, Mark (Michael Sheen). Portia is a very content character. She isn’t particularly anal retentive, neurotic, or passionate. She just kind of gets along with seemingly little worry. Naturally though, (for the sake of drama) this doesn’t last long.
Portia soon finds herself dumped by Mark in favor of a pregnant Virginia Woolf scholar and learns that a high school student who she meets on a scouting trip might be her son. The script goes to extreme lengths in the beginning to show that she really doesn’t care for children only to reveal that she once gave birth to one and gave it up for adoption! How rich.
The connection between Portia and her alleged son, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is made by John (Paul Rudd), a teacher at a progressive country school who dated Portia’s roommate in college and remembers said girlfriend lending her car to Portia at a specific time on Valentine’s Day to drive to the hospital to give birth. After seeing the time and date of Jeremiah’s birth on his birth certificate he assumes it must be Portia who works at Princeton where Jeremiah would just happen to like to go to school.
Sound pretty thin? It is. I won’t wade into spoiler territory here to discuss the extreme implausibilities of this connection and the glaringly stupid ways some of them are explained away, but the whole film is built on this extremely shaky premise and that should probably tell you enough whether to see it or not.
From that revelation the film becomes a quest for Portia to help the incredibly smart Jeremiah get into Princeton without compromising her morals and then deciding if she should reveal to him that she is his mother. In a nutshell: lives are changed, lessons are learned, and almost everyone walks away smiling. But you already knew that though, didn’t you?
You may have also surmised by this point that the whole premise here doesn’t sound all that comical. Again, you would be correct. I went into this after only seeing a single trailer for it a couple months ago and while I could really only remember that it was about college admissions and that I laughed a couple of times, I had just assumed that a movie starring Fey, Rudd, and Lily Tomlin (more on her in a minute) was going to be laugh out loud funny or at least trying to be. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, I would struggle to even classify this as a comedy. At best it is a dramedy, but even for that, the laughs are few and far between.
Admission seems to be a movie that was written and directed to be a light, family drama, but cast and promoted to be a romantic comedy, which it really isn’t. At all. You better believe that Portia hooks up with Rudd’s character and that they end up together, but this relationship is truly a subplot that seems to happen just because they’re two attractive single people who happen to be in the same movie. Their courtship isn’t particularly funny or even interesting beyond the fact that they’re both reasonably pleasant people who you’d like to see happy.
What makes this all really disappointing though is the fact that I think you could make a movie about a straight-laced woman charged with admitting students to one of America’s most prestigious universities and make it hilarious. One could easily satirize the bizarre lengths that high school students and their parents go to in order to look good on a transcript. Hell, they could have also just made Portia not so straight-laced. Truly great comedies include a character or two that clash with the so-called normal world around them for comedic effect, but Admission is almost completely devoid of that. It’s like everyone is playing “the straight man” without a “funny man” to react to.
The closest thing the film gets to a “funny man” is Lily Tomlin as Portia’s mother who lives out in the woods, is a radical feminist, and isn’t shy about her sex life in front of her daughter. She is the typical “zany mom” that you’ve seen in countless other films before and almost nothing about her is funny despite the immense talents of Tomlin at the filmmakers’ disposal.
Is Admission a painful film to watch? No. It’s just painfully mediocre. It’s one of those films built by Hollywood to offend no one. They likely succeeded on that front but I’d be very shocked to see anyone walk away truly loving this film. It has its chuckles, some feel-good moments, and Paul Rudd continues to look better and better with age but it is all so pedestrian and lackluster that you wonder if anyone was awake while they were filming it. I, for one, struggled to stay awake while I was watching it so their desire to nap is completely understandable.
So Tina, if you’re reading this: please, please, PLEASE write your own script next time. We’ll all be better off for it.
Images courtesy of David Lee and Focus Features.