Tina Fey makes funny TV shows, funny movies and funny books.
Director Paul Weitz often goes for something beyond funny emotional stories of parents and children trying to puzzle out something that bonds them.
She did 30 Rock, Date Night and Bossypants. He did About a Boy and Being Flynn.
Somewhere on the uncertain ground between the two is Admission. It's a romantic comedy of sorts about a lovelorn Princeton admissions officer forced to reconcile her judgmental job with the news that the baby she placed for adoption 17 years ago might be applying to ... Princeton.
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It's not a particularly satisfying comedy, but thanks to the cast and some of the odd directions it takes, Admission is an intensely likable one.
Portia (Fey) spends her days competing with Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to see who can be snobbier in front of the head of admissions (Wallace Shawn), hoping against hope to get the top job when he retires.
She comes home to her live-in beau (Michael Sheen), an English lit professor who reads Chaucer aloud and declares, "I like this life. I do, I do!" No children, an academic setting, a life of letters and purpose — what's not to like about it?
But calls are coming in. Quest, this new alternative school where kids learn to split wood, milk cows, build robots and think for themselves, has a star student. And his teacher, John (Paul Rudd), is determined to get Portia's attention. The student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), could be "Princeton material."
There's something else John wants to get across between awkward moments of violating Princeton policy and instances in which Portia is sure he's making a pass.
"Jeremiah — I think he's your son."
Much of the film is about miscommunication, things that stop just short of being said — Portia accepting this shocking news, or denying it; John and Portia trying not to tell the kid. She keeps seeing little things the teen does that are like her and starts looking for shortcuts so he can get into college.
Fey has made romantically put-upon her stock in trade, and as Portia's life unravels, there are plenty of moments that remind us of Fey's lonely 30 Rock loser, Liz Lemon. Portia is set up to be in open revolt against a "hippie" school like Quest, thanks to her brittle, feminist lioness of a mother (Lily Tomlin). But she's an egalitarian acting as guardian of the gates of American exclusivity, a college where fewer than one in 26 candidates is "Princeton material."
Fey plays this inner-outer conflict well. But at her most wide-eyed and vulnerable, she has trouble making a romance credible, even with Rudd, edgy comedy's puppy dog of a leading man.
Weitz can't winnow the story down to a simple personal journey with romantic overtones.
Admission breaks down the college admissions process, making blunt statements about the upper class's "legacy" and the cards students and their hovering parents will play to score Ivy League acceptance.
It's too scattered and ambitious for a movie that often slips into feminist, academic, postponed-motherhood and "alternative"-education clichés.
PG-13 for language and some sexual material. Focus Features. 1:47. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill.