Admission is the latest proof that no one in Hollywood knows what to do with Tina Fey. She's smart, a gifted writer, self-effacing, funny, and a myriad of other traits I'd love to have in a neighbor. But every movie I've seen her in sets her adrift in bad creative decisions. Her roles have been of characters mean-spirited and now dramatically incomprehensible.
But this latest failure to use Fey to her full potential is not her fault. I've at least enjoyed Fey in each of these films even if they never seem to gel. It's odd that all anyone wants to do is turn her into a bundle of neuroses and attach a different random character trait as well when she has much more potential than that. Hopefully someone will realize that they don't need to put her in a manic genre blender and just write a good movie role for her.
The day will come at some point, just not with this film and not with a director like Paul Weitz. I've liked some of his films and he's hit the sweet spot between comedy and unexpected drama before, but he still does not have that much in the way of tonal control. The best example is his 2006 film American Dreamz - which involved a broad satire of then-President G.W. Bush and American Idol wrapped in a terrorist plot to blow up the fictional G.W. on live national TV. There were some dark, hilarious lines in the film but Weitz did not have the firmest grasp of how to transition from Mandy Moore's sparkling face to debris floating down after an explosion.
This film somehow tries to spin even more plates even if the targets have less glamor and danger. Fey plays Portia, an admissions screener at Princeton, who is trying to curry favor with her soon-to-retire boss (played by the always wonderful Wallace Shawn) to take over his spot when he retires. Right there is fuel for one movie, especially with Fey in the lead, but more and more gets stacked on her life. Her boyfriend (Martin Sheen having fun hamming it up yet again) breaks up with her to marry a Virginia Wolfe professor, an old college classmate (Paul Rudd) named John who wants her to visit his campus and inspire the kids toward Princeton, she has problems with her distant mother (Lily Tomlin), and may be the mother of a troubled but gifted kid (Nat Wolff).
Pause for a moment on that last plotline and ask yourself how she could not know if this boy is her son or not. To answer that question is to reveal much, and I will instead guide you to the Idiot Plot. Portia is purposely, and for no real reason, kept completely in the dark about if this is her son based on a flimsy premise that, when revealed, caused me to groan in frustration as I listened to some of the most dismissive exposition heard this year. How someone written as a careful person take such huge chances on such flimsy information with no follow-through is badly contrived writing.
The poor screenplay continues on in several bad sequences where people are given grand, meaningless gestures - the kind where you get burned one day and think about how you could have triumphantly risen to the challenge later. A group of kids at an academically loose school spout generic talking points about gender and elitism against the uptight Portia. Her mother is one long bad speech functioning as an unlikeable strawhead figure for other liberal doctrine. Then at the end of one act Portia launches into another speech about letting the unusual kids in because maybe the system needs to change - right after we watch an incredibly diverse group of students get consideration, and some approval, for admittance. This movie repeatedly flails against a kind of empty upper-middle class liberalism with equally directionless attacks.
Weitz builds on this flimsy written core with one poorly staged scene of comedy or drama haphazardly placed to its polar opposite. In one particularly bad example of how not to balance the yuks and the feelings Portia goes from dejected and heartbroken to helping John give birth to a cow. It lets Portia get out her frustration with lines like "Where is the bull who did this to you?" while clumsily limping toward its placenta spilling destiny. Then she's trying to steal a baby in the next scene. Crying about her theoretically abandoned son the next. Like a metronome it continues on between radically different tones with no regard or transition to the next phase of her story.
Which leads us right back where we began. Normally I can see the ingredients of a good movie in poorer entries but with Admission it was buggered from the start. It's because of Fey's immense talent, with an assist from the also charming Rudd, that the film is not a complete disaster. I just would have liked to see her leading the charge instead of looking adrift trying to keep the pieces together.