The new release Admission is a comedy. But it is a serious comedy.
It’s easy to enter Admission thinking it must be a knee-slapping laugh-riot, filled with broad gags and ample potty humor. Considering that it stars reigning queen of comedy Tina Fey along with Paul Rudd, the popular star of many recent romantic comedies featuring every attractive female in Hollywood, the film seems primed for high silliness and crotch shots.
The comedy comes, but the twist arrives in its unexpected seriousness.
Life-altering themes such as abandonment, lost opportunities, maturity, resentment and parental neglect pile up. Perhaps its seriocomedy approach can be traced to Jean Hanff Korelitz’s source novel and Karen Croner’s sometimes unfocused screenplay.
The approach might also be traced to other sources: director Paul Weitz and Tina Fey’s reputation and persona. Fey has rarely branched outside of comedy, so that when she delivers some of her dialogue, it can be difficult to determine if the line is funny, or funny just because Fey is saying it.
Weitz seems to revel in this ambivalent material, such as in his 2004 film In Good Company and 2002’s About a Boy, which deftly mixed pathos and humor and starred another popular romantic comedy actor, Hugh Grant. Weitz also directed the original American Pie, which goes to show he has bona fide comedy skills.
Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University. She takes her job seriously, as well as everything else in her obsessive-compulsive, overly ordered life. When dumped by her boyfriend of 10 years, played by Michael Sheen, she makes a recruiting trip, staying with her cantankerous mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin).
At a private school, headmaster John Pressman (Rudd) introduces Portia to a precocious but underachieving student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Pressman, an old classmate of Portia’s, then lands a bomb by telling her Jeremiah might be the son she gave up for adoption when she was in college.
Whether Jeremiah — who’s applying to Princeton — turns out to be the son provides the hook for the film to explore its prodigious themes. A subplot involves whether Portia, knowing that the quality of mercy is not strained, will compromise her principles for him.
Admission defies being pigeonholed, particularly when actors stop and deliver deadly serious speeches only to pepper them with one-liners.
But such a mix gives the film its undeniable flavor.
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.