erik lundegaard


Admission (2013)


If Sarah Palin ever wants her revenge on Tina Fey, her bete noire, her impersonator extraordinaire, she should just watch “Admission,” the startling unfunny comedy from writer Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) and director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”). Fey, le femme forte of left-wing comedy, flounders as badly here as Palin did during that Katie Couric interview. It’s a train wreck of a movie. I laughed about five times during its nearly two-hour runtime.

Change has come to the Princeton admissions office

Fey plays Portia Nathan, an officious admissions officer at Princeton University, the No. 1 college in the country, where, the previous year, 26,241 applied. Fewer than 1500 were accepted. Rough.

It’s Portia’s 16th year on the job, same old same old, but this year change begins to come to Princeton. Witness:

  1. The Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is stepping down, and both Portia and her rival, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), are considered favorites for the job. These two, behind tight smiles, make hissing sounds at each other throughout the movie, until they kiss and make up. Kind of. And without the kissing.
  2. Portia’s longtime significant other, Chaucer scholar Mark (Michael Sheen), with whom she shares a sexless, childless, tea-drinking and poetry-reading existence, leaves her for a bitchy, domineering Virginia Woolf scholar, Helen (Sonia Walger).
  3. On a run through the various prep schools of New England (Do ivy-league admissions officers do this? Like they’re Willy Loman or something?), Portia stops off at Quest, an alternative school in backwoods New Hampshire, to look at a potential genius student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), at the request of the school’s founder, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). And, hey, guess what? Turns out Jeremiah is the child she gave up at Dartmouth 18 years ago.

So a lot of changes in her life all of a sudden. Plus Pressman’s cute, is raising a child from Uganda on his own, and goes around the world building dikes and shit for poor people. Much better than a sexless dude who reads Chaucer in bed.

Does she … or doesn’t she?

The drama, such as it is, is this: What does Portia do with this information about Jeremiah? Does she help her biological son, an autodidact with great SATs but lousy grades, get into her impossible-to-get-into ivy-league school? What are the ethical boundaries here?

Actually, the ethical boundaries never come up. John keeps pushing, she is pushed, willingly, and eventually she’ll do anything to get Jeremiah, a kid she would normally reject, into Princeton. I guess she has feelings now. I guess that makes it OK.

She plays political games with the other admissions officers, agreeing, with quid pro quo looks and glances, to accept their favorites in exchange, she hopes, for hers. Doesn’t happen. Corinne can’t accept a D student. So Portia breaks into the Dean’s office, changes his Excel spreadsheet on approvals/rejections, then switches the sticker on Jeremiah’s folder with that of an approved student whom she knows has already accepted Yale. Easy peasy. Remember kids: It’s who you know. Or who gave you up for adoption.

Does the movie ever condemn her for this action? Not really. She’s fired, sure, but there’s no mea culpa. She’s proud of what she did, even when she discovers that Jeremiah is not her biological son. The 1 PM February 14th birthdate? It was totally 11 PM.

Still, she comes to terms with herself. She stands up to her domineering, Erica-Jong quoting mother (Lily Tomlin). She tries to connect with her true biological son, who doesn’t want to see her. But she has John now, and his son, and John—in a subplot whose outcome is excruciatingly transparent—decides not to go to Ecuador to build some yadda yadda, but stays in New Hampshire, where his son wants to stay, and continue to educate a bunch of kids in the snooty, farm-friendly way he’s been educating them.

Ethics schmethics

Listen, if “Admission” were poignant, great. It’s not. It makes a weak argument for education-for-education’s sake, which is sweet and all, but hardly practical. I should know. That was basically my education. You need to be educated in the way the world works, too. You need to know what you’re up against when you leave college. Plus, shouldn’t education-for-education’s sake include one lesson on ethics?

Listen, if it were smart, great. It’s not. Early on, a neighbor, Rachael (Sarita Choudhury), deposits her three kids with Portia without warning, or even asking, then leaves. When she returns they’re crying and she blames Portia. What’s the point of this scene? I think it’s supposed to be: Portia’s no good with kids. What I got out of it? Rachael is a major asshole.

Listen, if it were funny, great. It’s not. You get these kinds of lines during a fight between John and Portia:

Portia: I am so glad you’re going to Ecuador except for one thing.
John: What?
Portia: I feel sorry for the Ecuadorans!

Paul Rudd isn’t bad. Nat Wolff is quite good as Jeremiah. But Tina Fey gives off nothing. What compelled her to do this?

—March 22, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard