Admission has all the hallmarks of a standard romantic comedy: likeable everyman protagonist? Paul Rudd. Check. Likeable everywoman heroine? Tina Fey. Check. High Class Problem to be solved: he wants to get the most promising student at his non-conforming offbeat alterna-New School into Princeton and she is the admissions officer. Screwball premise: Tina Fey might or might not be the mother of this student. Throw some cred at the supporting cast: why not cast Lily Tomlin as Fey’s counterculture feminist mother? Check. How about Michael Sheen as Fey’s philandering English chair live-in boyfriend (“you had unprotected sex with that vile Virginia Woolf scholar?”) Check.
The problem with this romantic comedy is that there’s no romance — no two actors ever lit up the screen with less chemistry than the combination of Rudd and Fey — and there’s even less comedy. Not one funny thing happens, unless one counts Rudd’s midwifery scene with a cow, and one certainly should not. No one could find anything amusing in that scene outside perhaps the editor who was required to cut it together for the trailer.
Admission isn’t even really a movie, so much as it is a would-be HBO series strung together from a book, a few recycled Oprah episodes, and maybe a couple of magazine articles (or blogs) about what happens to women who try to have it all but really need to let go and fall in love with themselves (as Lily Tomlin’s character advises Fey, before she finally experiences the requisite growth required of her by movie’s end and apologizes).
It’s all kind of a shame, because there is ample material here for what could have been a small, delightful thing: a gentle skewering of 6,000+ millennial helicopter parents vying for 1,000+ spots in an average Ivy League entering class; duels about the ‘diversity’ the Ivy League purports to seek…as long as it isn’t too diverse; the potential silliness of the alternative to the alternatives (teaching students to build “sustainable irrigation systems” is a good earnest thing, exactly ripe for satire in a way that deserves more than dumb, broad animal husbandry jokes). The would-be Princeton kids at the stereotypical prep schools and the kids at the alterna-school are all entitled little pishers — the myriad of ways in which they express that entitlement could’ve been comedy gold.
Director Paul Weitz has managed to take similarly hackneyed tropes that are more premise and point of view than plot (Dad’s Midlife Crisis, and Peter Pan tendencies among grown men) and spin them into something wistful, charming, and wryly amusing (In Good Company and About a Boy) but here, his touch comes across as joyless.
Lily Tomlin does more with less in a way that recalls Rudd’s last big movie, This is 40. That was a movie that would’ve benefited from shelving the central couple and spinning off an entirely different movie about the John Lithgow and Albert Brooks father characters. Tomlin’s Susannah, the aging post-mastectomy feminist (and author of The Masculine Mystique) who insists that her dogs hunt and kill their own food and who never has an exact grip on the nuances of maternal guilt she should be feeling, she might make for a pretty funny movie. Or at least an HBO special (what-happens-to-really-old Girls).