Which, in and of itself, reads dry, but the same could be said of Bennett Miller’s intriguing “Moneyball.” The newer ways to understand success and greatness, essentially a sabermetric approach to evaluating potential academic success, is ripe for universal drama about perception. The fact that it lacks the sex appeal of professional sports suggests it’s more suitable to a small independent filmmaker (with European financing, natch), but such a film could yield rich dramatic fruit, particularly paired with a star like Tina Fey.
Portia's field work in evaluating an “alternative education community” as a viable source for potential students yields not only a potential suitor in the school‘s headmaster John (Paul Rudd) but also a student who possibly might be the long-lost son that she gave up for adoption years ago, who is now applying for college. Her lukewarm chemistry with Rudd is a surprising misfire; perhaps it’s because Rudd is straitjacketed in a role he previously parodied in the underrated social satire "Wanderlust.” Even if this film weren’t being compared to David Wain’s shaggy commune comedy, quips about Rudd’s liberal do-gooderism and oatmeal-ish sense of whimsy would still fall flat. Rudd is an accomplished actor, but can’t convey actual warmth with an un-ironic smile. His skills lie in either the darkness of a dramatic situation or a flippant sketch-comedy sarcasm that punctures the sanctimony of authority figures.
Much of this nonstarter humor extends to Fey’s would-be son Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a precocious young savant that mostly showcases his intelligence with slack-jawed recitation of facts and statistics. When called upon to be a joke, Jeremiah leans towards awkward ventriloquism, a routine destined to play to stone faces in front of and beyond the fourth wall. She simultaneously champions his dubious juvenile resume as she warms to him as a prospective son, but as constituted, Portia barely seems invested in this wonderboy, the film’s notions about her hidden maternal instincts playing second fiddle to her endless professional exasperation. None of these issues clash in a natural manner, as each is isolated by cheap storytelling obviousness. When your character has difficult moral and emotional choices to make, don’t surround her with one-dimensional threats like a scheming interoffice rival (Gloria Reuben). It’s as if Weitz knows he’s got a corpse of a film on his hands -- never trust a movie when it feels as though you can see the director clasping the defibrillator. [D+]