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When the 'Perfect' Ending Isn't a Happy One

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 22, 2013 at 11:30AM

The new movie "Admission" features an ending that's both narratively and realistically satisfying. But will audiences respond to it enough to bring about more like it?
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Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in "Admission."
Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in "Admission."

This post contains SPOILERS for the ending of "Admission." 

The first time the marketing folks at Focus Features saw "Admission," they must have breathed a heavy, well-we've-got-our-work-cut-out-for-us sigh. What may seem on the surface like a simple, playful game of romantic cat-and-mouse between two leading performers with a good amount of comedy cred actually has it share of emotional misdirection.

"Admission" is no cakewalk for its main character, Portia (Tina Fey). Over the course of the film, she's confronted with her past decision to give a child up for adoption, informed that her mother went through breast cancer treatment without informing her and dumped from a ten-year relationship for a British scholar. And that doesn't even cover the various problems that stem from her work environment at the Princeton admissions office that pepper the film's final third. A hefty list of setbacks when put up against some fare where the most dire problem is pining for Mr. Right.

In the final tally of what works and what doesn't with "Admission," there's a number of factors to sift through. Paul Rudd's viability as both Portia's eventual love interest and a globe-hopping philanthropist (sure, why not?), Portia's maternal instincts kicking in when faced with her possible offspring (awkward, but oh so sincere), the satirical jabs at the wrong place, wrong time jilted-lover subplot (starring Michael Sheen and his beard!) and the bizarrely cutthroat nature of inter-office admissions politics (...if you say so). But regardless of how the rest of the film plays for critics and audiences alike, the one element which will likely keep it in the conversation longer than just its opening weekend is how it ends.

Jordan Hoffman finishes his review for ScreenCrush by writing "It’s a happy ending (it’s actually a perfect ending) but it doesn’t wrap everything up in a preposterous bow. These characters deserve better than that and this movie has the decency to admit that." That's a concise encapsulation of what sets "Admission" apart from some of its counterparts: a fitting conclusion that, with time, will likely outweigh some of the film's shortcomings. Credit screenwriter Karen Croner, original novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz and director Paul Weitz for being able to deliver it.

There's a drastic decision that Portia makes towards the end of the film to protect the future prospects of her would-be, long-lost son, a choice that I'm guessing more than a few might argue is a bit too drastic. While it isn't on the same bonkerrific level as, say, a "Safe Haven," from a narrative standpoint, that departure from our expectations of her character can be saved by an ending that treats the logical consequences. 

As a result, without going into specifics, Portia's life at the film's close ends up doing a 180 of sorts, with one major part of her life suddenly supplanted by multiple new relationships, romantic and otherwise. Not all satisfying endings have to be a zero-sum game where all happy developments are offset by grinding returns to reality, but if a main character does something of legal and ethical dubiousness (regardless of intentions), it would seem disingenuous to not introduce some sense of its repercussions.

Hugh Grant in "About a Boy."
Hugh Grant in "About a Boy."

This isn't the first time that "Admission" director Paul Weitz has navigated the happy-but-not-too-happy ending zone. At the helm with his brother Chris, the two directed the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel "About a Boy," starring Hugh Grant and a young, baby-faced Nicholas Hoult. There's a simple narrative device that both these films use in order to plant that seed right at the outset: voiceover. For Portia in "Admission" and Will and Marcus in "About a Boy," there's no doubt who the main characters are, whose happy ending we're eventually going to share in or reject. Naturally, since both films are based on novels, that's one way to keep the voice and spirit of the source material, but that's also a shorthand way to align our expectations and desires with those who get the most screen time. It could backfire if the ending of the respective films feel somehow unearned, but with these two films, it adds an added insight to these characters' imperfections that aren't exactly smoothed over during the final reel.

Like Will at the end of "About a Boy," Portia ends up with some of the same anxieties that she had at the film's outset, but the ending brings her a handful of helpful companions to help navigate them. Knowing that she's better equipped to handle the decision to give her baby up for adoption all those years ago (not to mention a fairly open-ended possibility of different professional pursuits) is where the happiness comes from, not a joyous, tearful makeout session with a swirling camera and heavy strings. 

It's the same spirit that guided the ending of another Paul Weitz film, "In Good Company," where Topher Grace's unfortunately named workaholic Carter Duryea doesn't end up with the girl (or a job, for that matter). Instead, the movie's ending serves as a heartening bookend. Earlier, we're shown Carter running on his treadmill, taking calls from inside his tech-savvy bachelor pad, but the end shows him out running against the backdrop of a real-life sunset. Maybe he still can't take an evening jog without leaving his cell phone at home, but at least the movie's worth of relationship and job turmoil that came before it has spurred an evolution of sorts.

There's a push and pull between escapism and being grounded in reality with these types of movies, as discussed here on the blog before. In an attempt to avoid "deliberate mediocrity," sometimes you have to turn to premises that are "resoundingly silly." (Or, in other cases, you get "little more than mindless fluff.") What makes something like "Admission" transcend all of those backhanded labels for less-grounded comedies is that it doesn't abandon the hour and a half that precedes it. It's a logical extension of the individual struggles that have driven the rest of the story. Portia doesn't get that grand reunion with her son, a chance at a blank-slate reboot that washes away decades of anxiety. The final shot shows Portia walking away into a gathering of friends and family, but her back is turned. We don't get to see her face, but we assume that it has a half-smile, rather than a half-frown. It's the best possible ending for a self-contained story without the "happily ever after" finality.

Hopefully, audiences who go into "Admission" expecting "The Ugly Truth 2: Princeton Boogaloo" will embrace the turns that Croner, Korelitz and Weitz offer up. It's possible to be happy without getting everything you want, and sometimes the best movie endings are the ones that help us realize that.

Read more of Jordan Hoffman's "'Admission' Review." The film opens wide today.

This article is related to: Admission


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