One of the more intriguing elements of this romantic comedy, directed by Paul Weitz, is the inside look it claims to give at the admissions process for Princeton University—the script, by Karen Croner, is based on a novel by Princeton faculty member Jean Hanff Korelitz. If your own college career was ever in the hands of a system this baroque and whimsically subjective, it might make watching this movie that much more maddening.
The heroine is Portia (Tina Fey) a veteran admissions officer who, like her colleagues, has long since become immune both to the plying and the outrage of Princeton aspirants and their families, and is ruthlessly able to stamp “DENY” on their dreams. She loves, or thinks she loves, the life she has with her nebbishy Prof boyfriend (Michael Sheen)—quiet, child-free nights in, reading poetry. She has to endure an occasional awkward visit with her disappointed Mom (Lily Tomlin), the author of an iconic feminist classic who expected more from her daughter than guarding the gate for the elite. Other than that, however, Portia’s life is comfortable.
But of course all this gets yanked away from her, and a wacky new life is dropped in its place. She meets John (Paul Rudd) the adorable head of a “progressive” school in rural New Hampshire, who introduces her to his most promising student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a brilliant, sweet, slightly dizzy kid that John thinks belongs at Princeton. Then, when he gets Portia alone, John’s real agenda emerges: He tells her that Jeremiah is her biological son, given up for adoption when she was in college.
Instead of recusing herself, Portia starts trying to steer the process in Jeremiah’s favor. She also, it need hardly be said, finds herself falling for John, and bonding with his adopted Ugandan son Nelson (Travaris Spears), who likes her because, in contrast to the globe-trotting, do-gooding John, she’s “boring,” as he feels an adult ought to be.
This complicated, rather contrived story gives rise both to farcical and to poignant scenes, and the terrific cast gives them punch. Fey’s persona, with her declarative delivery and her self-conscious disinterest in sex, seems to generate a love-her-or-hate-her response in many people. I’m in the former category—she’s fine company here, and strikes some surprisingly heartfelt, touching notes.
Of course, you may find yourself hoping that Princeton doesn’t ruin him. A quiet ironic joke built into the fabric of Admission is what it says about the American sensibility in relation to prestige institutions—the tension between the belief that they’re often essentially meaningless and their unshakeable currency in the American culture of success.
On the one hand, the movie suggests that getting into Princeton is an arbitrary, even corrupt process. On the other, we’re expected to root for Jeremiah to get into the school anyway. We’re told he’d “thrive” there, and he may believe he will, but it’s mentioned several times that he’s an “autodidact,” so you may wonder how much, in purely educational terms, he needs with college at all. I suspect the real reason the grownups want him to get in is simply so that he can put the word “Princeton” on his resume for the rest of his life.