Tina Fey didn’t write “Admission,” but between her performance and Karen Croner’s script, this smart and sweet comedy-drama is brimming with her dry wit and complex characters.
Fey plays Portia Nathan, a detail-obsessed admissions officer at Princeton University, where only one applicant out of 20 is accepted. Portia is ruthless in cutting through padded applications and helicopter parents to find the best students. She is particularly intent on doing so this year, as her boss (Wallace Shawn) has announced his retirement, and she’s competing with office rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben) for his job.
While touring schools in the Northeast, Portia gets a call from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who operates an alternative high school in New Hampshire. John tells Portia he’s got a great “diamond in the rough” student, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff). Then John drops the bombshell: He believes Jeremiah was the baby boy Portia gave up for adoption 16 years ago, when she attended Dartmouth.
When the news comes, Portia’s life is already in turmoil. Her staid English-professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) suddenly dumps her for a sultry Virginia Woolf scholar (Sonya Walger). Further complicating things are Portia’s undeniable attraction to John and her issues with her feminist-scholar mom (Lily Tomlin).
Director Paul Weitz takes Croner’s intelligent script — adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel — and wrings out solid humor from Portia’s comic struggles to balance her professionalism with her newly unearthed maternal instincts. Weitz also has fun depicting the cutthroat competition in academia, where transcripts and essays substitute for a genuine understanding of a student’s inner being. As for Weitz, his résumé is a roller coaster of varying quality, from the funny “American Pie” and the smart “In Good Company” to the detestable “Little Fockers” and last year’s overwrought “Being Flynn.”
As Fey’s first true star vehicle, “Admission” is a perfect follow-up to her recently concluded run on “30 Rock.” Here, she has a nice, easygoing chemistry with Rudd (hard to believe they’ve never done a movie together before) and trades barbs with Tomlin with an unforced agility. But Fey’s at her best riding solo, distilling Portia’s neurotic perfectionism just in the way she keeps her desk.
Tina Fey shines as a neurotic college-admissions officer in this sweet, smart comedy-drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for language and some sexual material.
Running time • 117 minutes.