With NBC's 30 Rock behind her, Tina Fey takes on the role of Portia Nathan, a struggling Princeton admissions officer, in the new comedy-drama Admission.
Like 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, Portia is funny, smart, quirky, and beset with personal and professional crises, with the key difference that her problems don't always end in laughter or in a crazy scheme gone awry. There's drama, breakdowns, and the occasional tears. Oh, and a wacky staunch feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) who has her own baggage to deal with.
Portia is a natural evolution for the talented Fey, offering her a broad range of emotions to showcase abilities beyond playing kooky and occasionally flummoxed. While the character might not be Fey Unleashed — more Lemon-lite — the role is an obvious and low-risk career move for the actress.
Hopping from straight comedy to comedy-light drama is a career path already taken by Admission costar Paul Rudd, who plays John Pressman, the head of a new private school who contacts Portia on behalf of a brilliant student. Rudd has been exploring the funny/serious/funny again terrain for a few years now, most recently in writer-director Judd Apatow's latest reflection of his life, This is 40.
But balancing an audience laughing at characters with an audience empathizing with characters is a difficult formula to get right, as Admission proves.
Director Paul Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner (working from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) initially go for the laughs, as Portia deals with high school students and their parents desperate for her letter of recommendation into Princeton. Weitz and Croner deliver wicked satire of the admissions process and the over-inflated importance of brand names in higher education, as well as more conventional chuckles in Portia's highly competitive relationship with a rival admissions officer (Gloria Reuben). Out of the starting gate, Admission is setting itself up to be a smart, breezy comedy.
Then Portia's personal life usurps this charming comedy in favor of a comedy-drama.
The thirtysomething is reasonably happy in her longtime and rather comfortable relationship with a weasely Princeton professor named Mark (Michael Sheen). Then he awkwardly informs her during a lunch party that he's leaving her for someone else — a personal nemesis, no less. Rejected, Portia seeks refuge in a dark pantry to weep. Her newly single status, however, also clears the way for her budding relationship with John to blossom. She deserves someone better to love and to love her. He's a workaholic who drags his adopted son around the globe on charity and goodwill missions who also could use a soul mate. And thus Admission becomes a romantic comedy.
Not so fast. Their courtship is mostly a supporting plot to the much bigger dilemma: how Portia can help John's gifted student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) get accepted into Princeton, after she learns of a possible connection to the teenager.
Her efforts to get to know and bond with Jeremiah are predictably awkward and often funny, but the laughs are short-lived as Admission abruptly downshifts into serious mode. Much of Admission's final half-hour deals with Portia's desperate and mostly unfunny attempts to convince others on the Princeton admissions board that Jeremiah deserves to be accepted into the Ivy League school on merits other than average-to-poor grades. So, now Admission is a semi-drama?
Editor Joan Sobel clearly didn't know what to make of the film's identity crisis, either, and she never commits the movie into a specific direction, even with a talented comic cast that also includes the ageless Wallace Shawn as Portia's retiring and somewhat inept boss.
Depending on your point of view, then, Admission is either a so-so comedy, or a quirky drama that's never fully formed. As a film, it's a disappointment. But as a proving ground for Fey, it works. Let's just hope she's also capable of smarter film choices.
Directed by Paul Weitz. Written by Karen Croner, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. A Focus Features release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material. Running time: 107 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.