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Admission: This Tina Fey-Paul Rudd rom-com pushes conventions (or at least tries)

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in Admission.

David Lee

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Karen Croner
Directed by
Paul Weitz
Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff

From the pun in the title to the multiple roms in the com, Admission has a lot on its résumé. This is one of those crowded-agenda movies that wants to be popular yet different too, a formula flick that keeps slipping out of the harness to ride free, only to strap back in again. The result is a picture curiously yet intriguingly at odds with itself: One moment is edgy, the next is not; the cast is terrific, the direction is not; here it's satirically sharp, there it's sloppily sentimental; now we're happily engaged, then we're cruelly dumped. Some films are electric – Admission settles for alternating current.

The free-ranging source is Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel, which looks at the gatekeepers to the grove of academic privilege that is Princeton University. The harness is Karen Croner's script, which tries to rebind the book as a conventional comedy. To that bright end, Tina Fey is recruited to the starring gatekeeper's gig. By day, her Portia is an admissions officer passing judgment on all those wannabe players in the Ivy League. By night, she's the live-in girlfriend of a weedy, tweedy Middle English prof who treats her like a loyal collie – affectionate pats to the head, separate sides of the bed. For sex, he prefers to curl up with Chaucer and The Miller's Tale or, lately, run around with a Virginia Woolf scholar. In the ensuing breakup, Portia barks but doesn't bite.

Yet she does bare her teeth back at the office, which gives Fey, who is awfully good at passive/aggressive, a chance to put some trenchant into the humour. Childless herself, Portia can afford to take dead aim at "millennial parents who think that their kid's application is the final referendum on their parenting skills." And, on that referendum, she clearly enjoys voting "No," at least until a recruiting trip brings her to an alternative school headed by a former classmate, John (Paul Rudd), an amiable liberal whose knee jerks to the plight of the Third World and the evils of the First. Well, since any impediment to romance is slim to non-existent, their amour can begin to bud. Which, formulaically, it does.

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The twists are more interesting, although the first is unlikely, when John introduces Portia to his "student prodigy," Jeremiah, a self-described autodidact with low grades but a Mensa IQ that has him pining for Princeton. Oops, what's more, he just might be Portia's son, the one given up for adoption way back in her college days. Yes, that's her "admission," and now, a sudden parent, she gets all millennial herself, eager to sneak the boy through her hitherto locked gate. Hypocrisy can be funny, and Fey definitely finds the laughs.

But the more credible twist comes when Portia heads off for an infrequent visit to her ferociously single mom Susannah – a veteran feminist famous for writing a seminal tome and infamously impatient with "any mother-daughter role-playing crap."

Director Paul Weitz has an obvious fondness for stories that chart the strained relationship between parent and child, although his track record is iffy – scoring with About a Boy, missing badly with Being Flynn. Luckily, Lily Tomlin rides to his rescue here, playing the old gal with a Bella Abzug tattoo and a manner to match – theatrically fierce yet without a trace of self-pity. Even better, Tomlin's comically broad performance allows Fey to show off her more subtle side. In the presence of this way-too-independent matriarch, Portia is a study in paralysis, a static mixture of cowed intimidation and repressed anger.

In fact, every actor is strong – Nat Wolff injects the nerdy teen cliché with a refreshing dose of mature confidence, and Wallace Shawn brings his usual sly twinkle to a cameo as the head of admissions. Also, a word or 50 about Paul Rudd. From the Judd Apatow surrogate in This is 40 through the smitten hanger-on in How Do You Know to the happy idiot in Our Idiot Brother, he had made a career out of the good-guy role. Nevertheless, this is typecasting built on a bedrock of talent – it takes a rare gift to play likeable likeably.

But if the cast is sublimely professional, the script is intermittently mundane, prone to breaking away from its barbed attacks on contemporary parents, or on Princeton's rep as a "corporation no different than an oil company," and returning to the tepid embrace of stale comic convention – like a couple of clumsy set-piece scenes, or that over-neat finale. Admission is admittedly a bit of a hypocrite itself – refusing to practise the very break-out-of-your-safe-mould lesson it preaches. Still, there's delight to be had in a romcom where romantic love is the least of things and the easiest to obtain. Rather, in the Ivy League and far beyond, it's filial love, fickle too but so inescapably permanent, that's much the harder test.

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