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Movie Review: “Admission”

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There’s something a little bit off with “Admission,” though it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what. It might be that it’s three different movies that don’t go especially well together.

“Admission” is a comedy that isn’t especially funny, it’s a romance in which two of the more likable actors around have zero chemistry with each other, and it’s a satire of the college admissions culture that has little to say about the topic that isn’t either well-trodden or crushingly obvious.

The one big thing the movie has going for it is rapidly undone by a late, nonsensical plot twist, while multiple strands of the plot are meant to be sympathetic, but really come across as creepy, unethical or both.

Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer about to tackle the application season while angling for a promotion, while Rudd is the dean of an experimental high school- which looks more like a kibbutz than any high school I’ve ever seen- in New Hampshire. During a college visit, Rudd introduces Fey to his favorite charge (Nat Wolff), who by the way wants to go to Princeton. Oh, and by the way, Rudd went to college with Fey and remembers her- OH, and by the way, Wolff may be the son she gave up for adoption years ago.

A big problem here is that Rudd’s character is all over the map- he’s an international mensch who’s spent years being a do-gooder all over the world and even has an adopted son from Uganda who looks like a 12-year-old Don Cheadle. We’re supposed to see him as a good Samaritan wanting to help out a kid at his school, and while he admits to selfishness, it’s the kind easily forgiven in a typical romcom.

However, he also came up with this strange, unethical scheme to get in touch with a girl he knew and probably had a crush on in college, ambush her with the news of her long-lost son, and get her to perhaps use her influence in an illegal manner to get him into college. That’s the kind of shadiness that this movie isn’t remotely prepared to deal with.

Meanwhile, Fey performs what we’re supposed to think is a heroic sacrifice, but the situation’s resolution is both completely unbelievable and way too easy.

“Admission” also takes a big swing and miss when it comes to the academic stuff. The cutthroat world of college admissions is actually sort of ripe for an incisive satire, but this isn’t it. The movie repeatedly makes the point that college admissions are tough and super-achieving applicants are clawing at each to get in. Doesn’t everyone know that? And a subplot about Fey’s feud with an office rival (Gloria Reuben) goes nowhere.

Other little things just feel wrong. The characters seem to drive back and forth between Princeton (New Jersey) and New Hampshire, which is several states and four or five hours away, roughly every other day; at one point, when it appears to be the afternoon, one character invites another to come to the other state “tonight.”

One of the best things about the movie is Lily Tomlin as Fey’s radical feminist mom, who lives in a rural cabin and cautions her daughter about not needing a man. Tomlin’s character is revealed to have an arm tattoo of Bella Abzug, which was one of just two things in the movie that made me laugh (though I don’t think anyone else in the theater got the Abzug reference.) But do radical feminist academic types usually own shotguns?

Michael Sheen, meanwhile, plays Fey’s boyfriend who ditches her early on in the movie; the running gag in which Fey keeps running into Sheen and new beau Sonia Walger is amusing, although Sheen’s turn as a cartoonishly pretentious twit isn’t nearly as amusing as when he did the same thing in “Midnight in Paris.”

“Admission” is based on a novel; I’m not really sure why anyone thought this strange story would make the ideal basis for a Hollywood romcom. Rudd and Fey really need to start choosing better roles, because both are on losing streaks of late.

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