Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not Worth the Price: Admission

Tina Fey, Nat Wolff and Paul Rudd in Admission

As lamentable as most American cinema is these days, I think that the comedy genre has fared the worst of all in Hollywood. That’s mainly because while horror and science fiction movies rarely suggest quality in the first place, comedy films always hold out great promise of screen success, because there is no shortage of talented comedic actors (Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Owen Wilson, Cameron Diaz) around and some dramatic actors who display a flair for it (Ryan Gosling, Kristin Bell, Johnny Depp). And while a few quality comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Wedding Crashers (2005) and I Love You, Man (2009) occasionally pop up, by and large the movies that result, from the frantic, tiresome likes of The Hangover (2009) and Bridesmaids (2011) to the missed opportunities of Seeking A Friend For the End of the World (2012) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) to the outright disasters of Get Him to the Greek (2010), Grown Ups (2010) and Pineapple Express (2008), are wretched and unfunny. (I actually pointed out how consistently bad American film comedy was in a post from September 2010; clearly, nothing has changed in the interim.) And if they’re not outright failures, sometimes the films, like Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) or Date Night (2010), are merely fitfully amusing. The latter is the most evident trait of Admission, which strands skilled movie newcomers like Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, as well as veterans like Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn in an underdone, predictable and, finally sappy comedy that betrays the promise of its main concept.

Tina Fey (30 Rock, Date Night) is Portia Nathan, the film’s supposedly moral centre, a Princeton University admission’s officer who is suddenly informed by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the head of a school she’s prospecting, that one of his most "gifted", in his words, students, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) is likely the son she gave up for adoption many years earlier. The news puts her into a tailspin and prompts her to begin to bend the rules for the first time in trying to get Jeremiah into the university even if he is deemed patently unqualified by most of her cohorts on the admissions committee, a state of affairs that John, for one, refuses to accept.

Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin in Admission
The best – and only – good parts of the movie revolve around the standards and criteria used by admission committees to decide who gets in and who is is kept out of the realm of higher education. Those sequences are played pretty straight and offer a scathing attack on institutions like Princeton whose faculty and staff seem mostly concerned that high marks, extracurricular activities and connections, such as being the progeny of Princeton alumni, be the sole basis of getting into the place. Indefinable and more important criteria like character, passion and thoughtfulness, as opposed to acquiring good grades, don’t count for anything, apparently. (As one local critic remarked, he was amazed that Princeton attached its name to this movie.) That’s smart, and likely, close to the bone these days. (As someone who got into Ryerson because of my practical experience as a journalist and not because of my grades, which were not that high, I appreciate when less obvious factors go into deciding things like this.) 

Where Admission first falters and then quickly falls apart is pretty much once it gets past the satiric aspects of assailing the U.S. educational system. The film becomes too much about Portia and her romantic dilemmas, particularly when her weedy boyfriend Mark (a miscast Michael Sheen) informs her he’s leaving her for another woman (this isn’t a spoiler, by the way: you can see that plot ‘twist' coming a mile away.) So of course when she meets nice looking but pushy John, you can guess how their initial squabbling relationship will end up. 

Fey does her best to create a believable person amidst the film’s predictability (my partner, Rosa, rightfully pointed out she came across as ‘authentic’) but the rest of the cast, from Rudd, to Tomlin as Portia’s eccentric mother and Wallace Shawn as her boss are welcome presences on screen but still not given any really good dialogue or scenes to deliver. (Screenwriter Karen Croner (One True Thing) isn’t especially adept at placing her protagonists comfortably into a bigger whole.) The only exceptions: Gloria Reuben (E.R., Lincoln) who gets to shine a bit in a rare villainous role as Portia’s nemesis and competitor; and Nat Wolff, as the possibly Asperger’s afflicted Jeremiah, is also very good – easily the most arresting character in the film. And director Paul Weitz (In Good Company, Little Fockers) directs competently but unimaginatively.

However, what most rankles about Admission besides its laziness in terms of story construction is its hypocrisy: attacking John for doing something unethical but letting Portia, whose scheming tops even his actions, entirely off the hook. (Their motives are precisely the same, after all.) Even her one setback turns out okay in the end. Had Admission matched its pointed barbs at Princeton with equally fleshed out and off kilter protagonists and comedic situations, the film might have left an indelible mark. But it doesn’t and once again, we have a ho-hum, serviceable but entirely forgettable Hollywood comedy on our hands. One person I was talking to about the movie opined that maybe Fey should write her own screenplays for her future films – her only screenwriting credit, besides her TV work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, is Mean Girls (2004). That certainly couldn’t hurt, though Fey’s fellow Saturday Night alumnus Kristen Wiigs’ screenplay for Bridesmaids was no great shakes. But maybe Hollywood needs to develop a better comedy farm system where its brightest prospects get placed on movies that are actually commensurate with their skills. Then actors like Fey and Rudd, too, could make a better, bigger and more uproarious splash instead of merely wetting us with minor, tepid laughs. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. His current course, What Makes a Movie Great?, runs through April 12.

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