Admission is such a mess, its good ideas knotted up with its unfocused and bad ones, that even if you end up liking the damn thing, you may find yourself apologizing for its faults. Tina Fey's first movie to be released since 30 Rock ended reminds us that she can do more than Liz Lemon, and it's great to see her take on an emotionally complicated character piece. (The ads make it look like a fish-out-of-water romcom, but they're lying.) The movie takes some risks—it's not another predictable date-night flick. But I keep wishing it was just a little better than it was.
The film stars Fey (who didn't write the screenplay or the Jean Hanff Korelitz book it's based on) as Portia, a respected and dedicated longtime Princeton admissions officer. Portia is in the running to become the new dean of admissions, and she's also in a comfortable-as-an-old-shoe relationship with a Princeton professor (Michael Sheen). Her life is so perfectly put together that you know it won't be long before she experiences a complete meltdown and some late-night soul searching.
That crisis comes in the form of John (Paul Rudd), a former classmate she doesn't remember who runs a progressive, rural East Coast high school that encourages independent thinking and an unconventional curriculum, including lessons on how to milk cows. Portia visits John's school, where he introduces her to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a senior with terrible grades but an incredible intellect and a passion for reading. John hopes that if Portia meets Jeremiah, she'll consider accepting the rudderless kid into Princeton. Portia isn't sure about Jeremiah's academic potential, but then John springs a surprise on her: Jeremiah is her long-lost son that she gave up for adoption after getting pregnant in college, hoping no one would ever find out.
In its broad strokes, Admission is a romantic comedy-drama that chronicles how uptight Portia and free-spirit John fall for each other, but the movie is more unpredictable and nuanced in its trajectory. We've come to expect that from director Paul Weitz, who started out working with his brother Chris on American Pie and About a Boy before going on to make movies on his own like In Good Company and Being Flynn. (Regrettably, he's also the guy responsible for Little Fockers.) Judging from his films, Weitz is somebody who likes operating in the terrain located between broad laughs and lump-in-the-throat melodrama, trying to find the small character moments that speak volumes about the regrets and disappointments most people carry around with them on a daily basis.
Admission is Weitz at his most James L. Brooks-esque, giving us a bunch of sweet, flawed characters floundering around with their problems. More specifically, Admission is like Brooks' most recent movie, How Do You Know, which also starred Rudd. If you liked that film, tolerating its tonal inconsistencies and so-so plotting to appreciate its deep affection for its characters and the warmth of its performances, then you might be open to the bighearted Admission. (Considering what a bomb How Do You Know was, Admission's backers will probably be thrilled by the comparison.) This is a film with awkward comic sequences and too many meandering digressions, and yet the sheer sincerity of what it's trying to say and Weitz's desire to populate his story with so many three-dimensional characters ultimately win out.
A lot of the credit for holding the whole thing together goes to Fey, who with Liz Lemon created such a fun, self-mocking modern variation on The Woman Who Wants It All. In her film work, she's played aspects of Liz—the smart professional in Baby Mama, the acerbic mom of Date Night—but Portia is more of a performance than a riff, and Fey does a pretty decent job of making us almost forget about the iconic TV character she's been playing for the last seven years. Portia's arc is pretty familiar—she realizes her neat little life is a shambles—but Fey makes each moment better than it probably would be otherwise. Afraid to reveal herself to Jeremiah but also scared to admit her past to her Princeton colleagues, Portia ought to be a conniving, unlikeable woman, but Fey just won't let us hate her. Even at the beginning, Portia is adorable enough that we're always on her side. It's the same technique she brought to Liz: That character was so self-aware of her many, many failings that her pettiness almost seemed charming.
Because Admission isn't a conventional romance—the love story (and John as a character) really is secondary—it has room to explore a lot of other areas. (For one thing, the film's title has a double meaning, underlying the story's somewhat-obvious point that, really, so much of life is about the anxiety of being accepted, whether it's by a college admissions board, your family, a worthy romantic partner, or your peers.) Weitz charts Portia's belated coming-of-age in several ways, including her strained interactions with her hippy-dippy single mother Lily Tomlin and her slow warming to the idea that Jeremiah's emergence could be her second chance at the life she gave up. This movie wanders around and it's only sporadically funny, but as Admission rolled along, I found myself not minding, simply enjoying, these characters and sympathizing with their dilemmas. After all, it's not just Portia who's struggling: John's seemingly selfless do-gooding spirit has its downsides, while Jeremiah is a nice, sweet kid whose whole life is stretching out in front of him—if only he doesn't throw it away because of a lack of drive. (The strong performances help: Rudd is at his most charming and vulnerable, while Wolff is just right as the articulate, uncertain young Jeremiah.)
Granted, this is a film that's easy to pick apart on a story level. (For instance, there are plenty of good colleges in the U.S., so why is it so important to John that Jeremiah get into Princeton?) But it's also impossible to predict where it's going to go from moment to moment, which has its rewards. Like Portia at long last, Admission lets its heart be its guide. Sure, that's corny—but this movie turns that into a strength.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.