Mark Reviews Movies

Admission

ADMISSION

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Weitz

Cast: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin, Travaris Spears, Gloria Reuben, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and some sexual material)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 3/22/13


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 21, 2013

The premise at the start of Admission offers no hint as to where the film eventually goes. It begins with the day-to-day routine of a college admissions officer. She works in a restricted-access office on the campus of Princeton University, hiding from the wide-eyed view of high school students who only want to know the secret to getting into the school of their dreams. When she's taken aback by a delayed tour group standing outside her department (with an ominous "No admittance" labeled on the doors), the teenagers and their parents stare at her in awe, and yes, that includes the fear part of the term, especially for the prospective student and parent who caused the tour to be late in the first place.

"What is the secret," one student asks. "There is no secret," she admits; "Be yourself," is the only advice she can put forward to the group. The overwhelming majority of applicants won't be accepted into Princeton. Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) knows this, and she also knows not a single parent of this generation would admit that his or her child isn't Princeton material. They've been raising their children to believe they can do anything—a noble idea but not one based in reality. She encourages them to get their applications in on time, nonetheless, because as long as they keep applying, it will help with the university's ranking. Portia gets to keep her job, and there might even be a promotion in line for her when the dean retires at the end of the year.

The process of her work—the nuts and bolts of it—doesn't matter much, save for the establishment of a routine for Portia and the story's climax. What Karen Croner's screenplay (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) is more interested in is why this character has chosen this line of work, which puts her in a protective bubble and places her in a seat of judgment over so many others.

The reason for the latter is easy enough to gather. Portia's mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) is an ultra-liberal feminist with no patience for anyone. She tells Portia the story of her conception whenever the subject of family arises (Portia lives with a professor at the university played by Michael Sheen—a relationship as monotonous as her job); it's an unromantic tale of Susannah's meeting, having sex with, and never again seeing a complete stranger. Nothing—it seems—is good enough for Susannah, especially when it comes to her daughter, whom Susannah believes has squandered whatever potential she may have had. Portia has no desire to have children on account of this baggage, as she doesn't see the point in transferring it to her own child.

She visits her mother on a trip to a new school to encourage prospective applicants to the university. John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the teacher who invited Portia, tells her about a special student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). He has essentially taught himself for his whole life, and his dream is to attend Princeton. John also suspects that Jeremiah is Portia's son; he has a birth certificate that shows he was born at the same hospital, on the same day, and at the same time as the baby Portia had and gave up for adoption when she was in college.

Once she admits to herself that Jeremiah is more than likely her son, the story falls into a predictable pattern. Things get worse for her. Her boyfriend leaves her for another woman. She becomes more erratic at work, leaving the promotion wide open for her competitive co-worker (Gloria Reuben). John continues to press her to tell Jeremiah that she is his mother and insists that she see the young man for the potential Princeton student that he believes the kid is (Rudd pulls off a tricky maneuver in making these two ideas separate entities instead of coming across as, say, blackmail). John's adoptive son (Travaris Spears) is rebelling against his father for taking him on humanitarian trips around the world when he only wants to have a normal life (There's a pair of simple but genuinely touching moments between them involving a statue). Of course, a hesitant romance starts to bloom between Portia and John, although it is at least taken in baby steps.

Through it all, though, there are threads of emotional honesty. The most important of those is unspoken but clear nonetheless, and it's the way Portia reacts to the film's key revelation. She remains silent on the matter to everyone and refuses to get into any details about it with John, the only person who knows. Whatever emotional toll the news takes is bottled up inside—a trait we quickly come to expect from her (It comes out at unexpected times, like when she first meets Jeremiah's adoptive parents and cannot help but enthusiastically thank them).

Her actions tell another story, and part of that is her decision to hide the information in regards to work. There's an obvious conflict of interest in her focus on Jeremiah, and the fact that she's willing to risk a serious breach of ethics in order to help him tells us that she's attempting to make up for years of absence the only way she knows how.

Even with a few stumbles here and there (The most significant one comes late in the film—the realization of a coincidence that seems far-fetched and only appears to exist as a chance act of cruelty against Portia), Admission has a solid emotional core, bolstered by director Paul Weitz' refusal to pass judgment over any of these characters. They are decent, likeable people doing the best with the tools they have.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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