One wouldn't expect a Tina Fey/Paul Rudd vehicle to come off that well--or meaningfully for that matter--but, somehow, by toeing the line between drama and screwball comedy, it does. More than just a comedic series of mishaps and misfortunes in the world of Portia Nathan (Fey), a type A admissions officer at Princeton, Admission is an exploration of how people are influenced and motivated to action when love, guilt or presumed familial ties are involved. In the case of Portia, her emotional stunting began, naturally with her mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin, in of her more humorous roles to date). It is because of Susannah's feministic, self-sufficient tendencies that Portia rarely lets people in--to Princeton or otherwise.
With application season in process--and Princeton recently demoted to the second most prestigious university--Portia's tensions are running high. In addition, the Head of Admissions, Clarence (Wallace Shaw, yes, Mr. Hall from Clueless), is about to retire and pass his title on to someone else, either Portia or her competitive fellow admissions officer, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), which merely adds to Portia's stress level. The only level of commitment she has ever allowed herself to have is a ten year domestic partnership with an English professor named Mark (Michael Sheen, who also appeared as Fey's "settling soul mate" on 30 Rock). Their relationship ends abruptly, however, when Mark announces to her at a professors' lunch that he's leaving her for the Virgina Woolf scholar she hates so much--and that he's gotten said scholar pregnant with twins. Watching him leave in shock, Portia continues to chair the party by serving a plate of chicken to the crowd. As she serves it, she seethes, "Who wants a breast? Mark loves breasts. Who wants a thigh? Mark loves thighs. Who wants an asshole? Oh, that's me." Noting her anger and sorrow, one of the professors comforts her by saying, "Virginia Woolf was an overrated twat. No Gertrude Stein."
Luckily, Portia still has her work to distract her. Recently contacted by John Pressman (Rudd), the director of a developmental school called Quest, Portia sets out to the rural area where the school is located to give her usual Princeton spiel. Only instead of being met with the usual enthusiasm that she is accustomed to, the students deride her for encouraging them to support a "corporation." Only one student, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), comes to her defense, insisting that Portia finishes her presentation. When she concludes, Jonathan apologizes for not warning her about the students' zeal for "open discussion." He also reintroduces her to Jeremiah, who he feels she should get to know better. Regarding him quizzically, Portia says that he can visit the campus and stay with one of the freshmen if he wants to. With one night to kill before her next town, Portia heads over to her mother's house to spend the night. As she enters Susannah's house, she shouts, "Mom?!" to which Susannah replies, "Who is it?" Portia retorts, "Who else do you know that calls you mom?" It is the first case in point of the type of rapport they have, with Portia constantly trying to forge the bonds of a mother-daughter relationship and Susannah constantly trying to negate any bond whatsoever.
With her mother's utter lack of support, Portia retreats to her old room--which Susannah is renovating--after she tells her that she had a mastectomy and is now wearing fake breasts. When Jonathan calls her to ask her to dinner, Portia quickly agrees, none too pleased with her mother's food options (kale). At the restaurant, Portia and Jonathan discuss his frequent travels with his adopted son, Nelson (Travaris Spears), and how he plans to leave for Ecuador to build houses in a few months. When Jonathan drives Portia home, he says he has to tell her something. Assuming that he's interested in her, Portia immediately shoots him down but then ends up accidentally kissing him. He kisses her back and then tells her that he thinks Jeremiah is her son as Susannah starts firing a gun at him.
With this new knowledge to deal with, Portia finds it increasingly difficult to focus on her work--especially since she knows how badly Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton. As this weighs on her mind, she finds herself getting increasingly involved with Jonathan so she can help coach him on how to make Jeremiah look more desirable to an admissions committee that will be none too impressed by his GPA. At one point, she even finds herself aiding Jonathan in the delivery of a calf--just one in a multitude of events that brings them closer together. In spite of her efforts, though, she knows in the back of her mind that Jeremiah's chances are unlikely.
Director Paul Weitz, who most recently directed the much more dramatic Being Flynn, wields every shot in a deliberate and controlled manner, almost mirroring the mindset of Portia herself. And, with Karen Croner's script (based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2009 novel) building a believable romance between Portia and Jonathan, the culmination of Admission is peppered with a few twists that make the film even more engaging. Plus, it redeems Paul Rudd from the atrocity that was Wanderlust and may possibly set the bar a little higher for Fey in choosing her movie roles.