‘Admission’ falls short of being provoking, smart

“Admission” (2013), starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, is a college-themed light comedy that evolves into an adoption drama. Fey plays Portia Nathan, an extension of her popular “30 Rock” character Liz Lemon with a duller sense of humor, here an uptight and professionally stressed admissions officer at Princeton University. On a recruiting visit, she reconnects with her former college classmate John (Rudd) and finds that one of his most talented students may be the son she gave up for adoption years ago. Not surprisingly, the plot progresses toward a burgeoning love affair between Fey and Rudd’s characters and also a conflict when Portia must decide if her newly found son is deserving of admission to Princeton.

The film, from “American Pie” and “About a Boy” director Paul Weitz, possesses the ambiguous tone of some of his other, light stories, with neither its gags nor dramatic moments landing comfortably. Weitz’s comedy-dramas at their weakest often display a lack of commitment to a single, tight plot line and emotions. It may be surprising to viewers that “Admission” isn’t very funny, and in fact does not try to be. Viewers used to Fey’s humor in “30 Rock” or Rudd’s outings in the more raucous comedies of Judd Apatow may be somewhat confused by this comparatively low-key offering, not that it transcends those other works in quality.

While there is not a whole lot in the way of comedy, the film also lacks in action. Despite the highly charged setting of the Ivy League admissions world, it seems that the storyline, adapted from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz ’83, misses opportunities for deeper portrayals of politics and biting satire a la “Election” (1999). Beyond the potentially misleading marketing, which gives the impression of a broader comedic romance, the film may not disappoint as much as fail to excite the viewer. It’s easy enough to be jaded by the enormous quantity of romantic comedies that revolve around unlikely pairings and a sentimental hook. “Admission,” indecisive of what it wants to be, can’t even affirmatively qualify as a fully competent piece of mediocrity.

For all of the film’s painstaking detail in being uncommonly accurate about the college admissions process, these elements are rarely utilized with imagination or direction. Everything feels obligatory, lethargic and not quite interesting in the universe of “Admission.” Sitting in the theater, the film’s limp action makes one wonder how two noted comic actors could turn out a film that feels so plain where it should have had promise. Is the joke on us?

Rudd and Fey are mostly game for the light romantic scenes they share, but what mars the chemistry that might have been is the movie’s flimsy script. The pairing sounds on paper like the necessary beginning of a successful, if not hugely typical, romantic comedy. “Admission” perhaps overestimates how interesting the trials of a neurotic admissions officer’s plight to reconnect with others are and does not provide enough material to sustain the action on screen. It instead drags itself through the doldrums of convention, although it cannot commit fully to a comfortable genre. Unfortunately, nor can it transcend categorization as another underwhelming romantic comedy.

Fey and Rudd’s screen personae remain relatively intact while the lack of purpose in the story rears its head. “Admission” is about many things, yet doesn’t utilize the interesting subject matter properly to qualify as an entertaining or a smart movie. It falls strangely in between.

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