Paul Weitz is a director I have come to dread. About a Boy was a long time ago, and in the interim he has done some truly abysmal films such as Cirque du Freak, American Dreamz, and Being Flynn (I didn’t even bother with Little Fockers). But after a 12-year-drought, Weitz has delivered a film that’s almost as funny and sweet as About a Boy. His new movie, Admission, is a playful, nice little story where leads Tina Fey and Paul Rudd have the room to exercise their comic and dramatic abilities, and do so with a charming screenplay from Karen Croner. Even though it heads towards safe places, Admission never feels gratingly familiar.
Portia Nathan (Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton. She’s settled into a personal and professional malaise where she tolerates her occupation and lack of affection from her long-term boyfriend (Michael Sheen). On a visit to the progressive Quest School, she meets John Pressman (Rudd), a teacher who believes she should meet his student Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) because Jeremiah might be the son she gave up for adoption 17 years ago. Struck with a maternal impulse, Portia begins reevaluating her profession and relationships.
Rather than try to add flair to this safe, mild story, Weitz only adds a few colorful moments like Portia imagining the student whose application she’s reading. For the most part, Admission simply lets the lead actors carry the film, and that’s not a bad decision when you have Fey and Rudd at the center. Neither is playing a radically different character than what we’ve seen them play before. Fey in particular should probably set aside the “neurotic-workaholic-who-wants-to-be-a-mom” character after this film. Admittedly, Admission pushes her further into dramatic waters than Baby Mama or 30 Rock even if Portia also engages in outlandish stunts like crashing a party to check on Jeremiah. Despite the familiarity of their roles, Fey and Rudd click together perfectly, and it would be great to see them pair up again in the future.
All of the tension and life comes from the actors and the dialogue because the themes simply serve as window dressing. There’s a vague examination of smart kids rebelling against smart parents, but it all comes to the obvious point of “understanding and communication are important”. There are also some slight jabs at the college admissions process, but the hard hits don’t seem intentional. Admission wants us to understand how far a parent would go to have the best life for their child, but an unintended side effect of Portia’s story makes Princeton look like a stodgy institution that would rather accept resume-padding students rather than smart kids who have a love of learning. The unassuming screenplay is so quiet and cozy that it fails to register its own sound.
Admission reveals that Weitz works best when trying to develop sympathy for his characters in a comfortable setting. Cirque du Freak and American Dreamz are cynical but not particularly biting, so it’s like hanging around a mopey teenager. Weitz has a very small wheelhouse, and that wheelhouse doesn’t have the room for intense emotions. Otherwise, you get Being Flynn, which is just bitter and angry characters who summon no empathy from their big emotions. Admission plays the conflict small and avoids breaking new ground, but perhaps that’s for the best since Weitz ends up avoiding the fissure.