Half an hour into Paul Weitz's new comedy, Admission, it dawned on me that I was watching an Americanized About a Boy -- which admittedly was also directed by Weitz. Both movies are adapted from other people's novels; both cobble together families out of the waifs and strays of modern life.
But where About a Boy was both funny and wise about urban alienation, Admission settles for skin deep.
Admission's plot hovers in the vicinity of two square-peg boys. One is small, black, adopted from Uganda and yearning for a normal life. The other, also adopted, is tall, white and likes to perform ventriloquy through a doll named Rene Descartes. Hold that thought.
But the movie isn't primarily about those two young men. It's mostly about what it takes to be a parent today — biological or not, willing or otherwise.
It's hard to think of a demographic more hot and bothered about how well it's doing its job than the one Princeton University admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is uniquely well-placed to observe. After many years on the job, Portia knows it will cut no ice to say "be yourself" to a visiting platoon of graduating seniors — not given the trailing horde of moms and dads who'll see their children into the Ivy League or die trying.
When her annual recruiting trip brings her to a Vermont progressive school (Cow-Milking 101, that sort of thing), Portia encounters teacher John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a twinkly former college classmate who offers evidence that his top student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is also the son Portia gave up for adoption while she was an undergraduate at Dartmouth.
Why yes, Jeremiah also wants in at Princeton. Thus does Portia — newly bursting with biological imperative — turn into precisely the kind of rabid mom that once made her roll her eyes, bending every rule in the admissions handbook to get Jeremiah into her university.
Adapted by Karen Croner from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, spouse to a Princeton professor and a onetime reader of applications there, Admission is funny and sharp about the mechanics of wheeler-dealing in academia, whose ferocious turf wars would put any corporate shenanigans to shame.
And though I'm not big on message movies, I love this one to bits for urging parents to listen to what their kids want instead of treating them as extensions of their own ambitions. In that regard, John is not doing too well by his own son.
As an ardent fan of Tina Fey's comedy, though, I'm not persuaded that she can also flesh out a character in the way that, say, Kristen Wiig becomes a serious human in Bridesmaids. In Admission, that may be because Fey's being asked to rehash the what-have-I-missed career-woman nonsense that Hollywood continues to crank out years after that dreary trope should have gone into the dustbin.
Compulsively orderly, Portia trims the baby bonsai on her desk with nail scissors. Her highest ambition is to succeed her boss (Wallace Shawn, doing his usual inquisitive-badger thing) when he retires. She fondly believes that her washed-up relationship with a fusspot literature professor (Michael Sheen) is going fine. And having been kept at arm's length all her life by her militantly feminist mother (Lily Tomlin, what possessed you?), Portia has persuaded herself that she never wanted children.
In other words, she's overripe for some remedial feather-ruffling to soften her into a real woman. Duly shaken and stirred by the twin prospects of love and motherhood, Portia too must apply for something she wants very badly. She learns that applicants must also often be supplicants, with all the emotional cost that entails. I loved that part, but I wish that Croner hadn't felt obliged to build yet another Eve Arden mutant for whom the childless life feels like a glass half empty.
I wish that not because such women don't exist — I'm one of them, and I wouldn't be without my child or my work. But I have female friends by the bushel who are passionate about their careers, adore their friends and/or lovers, and call that a life well-lived. Will somebody please step up and make a movie about them without making them over in Our Miss Brooks' image?