Film review: Admission

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Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in the not-so-serious soul searcher Admission. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in the not-so-serious soul searcher Admission.

Comedy neutral: Admission struggles to find a balance between humor and drama

Some movies are serious comedies. Others are dramas that happen to be funny. Then there’s Admission, which can’t make up its mind which it is, and is subsequently neither.

At Admission’s center is Tina Fey, who stretches beyond playing the straight man and being the butt of every other character’s jokes (as often was the case on “30 Rock”). She’s Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, who’s contacted by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a teacher at a hippie- friendly type school in Keene, N.H.

Pressman has a senior in his class who has terrible grades, but aced the SAT and the AP exams (without taking AP courses). He’s also a heavy reader, and self-taught about most things.

And he’s adopted. And his birth date happens to be an important date to Portia. And Pressman puts two and two together.

That sounds like a spoiler, but it’s really a McGuffin—a plot device used to kick the story into action. Because once Portia learns about the senior, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), she begins to question everything in her life.

Why, for example, has she stayed at the same job for 16 years? Why is her job in education? Why does she stay with the same boyfriend for a decade when there’s clearly no passion between them? Why is her mother (a welcome Lily Tomlin) such a jerk to her? Why is she afraid of personal risk?

Why, the filmmakers ask us? They demand that we care! And it’s hard to care. Director Paul Weitz (most recently he directed the not-comedy Being Flynn) gets stuck between the jokes (Portia gets roped into delivering a calf at the hippie school with John and Jeremiah) and the drama (the whole what’s-best-for-our-kids motif), and the rhythm is off.

None of that would be difficult to swallow if the gags were funny and didn’t come across as time-fillers. Rudd downplays most of the comedy in a way that makes it seem like he’s compensating for the screenplay’s straight-up silly turns.

Still, the movie gets some things right. Portia’s initial reaction to meeting Jeremiah and learning, maybe, who he is, feels authentic. So does her reaction after she bumps into him during a Princeton tour.

What feels inauthentic is much of everything else. For example, do the filmmakers know how far apart Princeton, N.J., and Keene, N.H. are? Do the filmmakers realize Lily Tomlin is really funny, and is wasted in the role of a bitter hippie? Is there any way the ventriloquism show would actually produce the effect it does in the end?

Sure, seeing those scene descriptions railroaded next to each other doesn’t make much sense. Neither does much of Admission. At least the movie proves that Tina Fey can carry a picture (even if it’s not so good), and Paul Rudd can rein it in, which he hasn’t done often outside The Object of My Affection and The Shape of Things. On the whole, though, Admission’s studio should have denied it like so many kids Princeton turns away.

Admission/PG-13, 107 minutes /Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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