Some people don’t seem to realize that the type of stories being told in film needs to change. Small-scale tales of middlebrow intimacy and minor dramatic conflict used to have a home in the cinemas, where they would play to audiences who didn’t have a surplus of entertainment options. Today, the problem isn’t that these stories are no longer relevant commercially or creatively -- they still are -- but that they lack the incisive filmmakers necessary to guide them properly to the big screen. Case in point: Paul Weitz’s toothless, sleepy “Admission,” which portrays the topsy-turvy life of a Princeton admissions officer who has to cope with widening standards and new methods of evaluation in regards to new students.
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.
It’s unfortunate that Fey instead is saddled with weak attention-getting subplots not worthy of such analyses. Fey, a winning presence, feels typecast as Portia, a childless fortysomething who has her career in order but hides a personal life left in shambles. Her longtime academic boyfriend (Michael Sheen, effectively making this “30 Rock” fan-fiction) has ended their ten-year relationship to pursue a more generically attractive literary colleague, leaving Portia without attachments as the admission season is rounding up.
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.
Fey acquits herself simply by way of having to play a reactive presence, which assisted her greatly during years as the straight woman on “30 Rock.” That familiarity only contributes to the lack of compelling dramatic conflict established in the film. Weitz has shown enough versatility in his career to bungle several genres from parody (“American Dreamz”) to fantasy (“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”), and he follows through again with a film that keeps stopping short to present context-less gags. Weitz hasn’t met a tableau he can’t cheapen with some failed slapstick, placing characters in inorganic setups that inherently betray the plot. Fey’s admissions officer is almost always overworked, and yet is frequently found outside the office for the sake of a lazy one-liner about confronting anxious would-be students or bumping into her ex. With a forced wink and an unmotivated exit stage left, Weitz seems to believe “comedy” and “drama” are separate ingredients in an over-processed meal to be arbitrarily mixed.
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+]