Today's romantic comedies are neither particularly romantic nor particularly comic. They seem to exist solely to scold and punish women who want to be anything other than a wife and mother—think of films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, Notting Hill, The Devil Wears Prada, 13 Going on 30, and the list goes on. There is something sad about seeing any marginally competent actress in such a vehicle—and something tragic when that woman is Tina Fey.
Fey carefully cultivated her post-Saturday Night Live fan base by perfecting the art of self-deprecation. But the sad sack, lovable loser Liz Lemon in 30 Rock is endearing because she is part of a broader cultural satire, one that includes targets other than the hopeless career woman whose success fails to compensate for her emptiness.
In Admission, Fey plays Portia Nathan, a gatekeeper at Princeton University who spends her days dully and unenthusiastically lecturing would-be collegians about the essentialness of being fresh and enthusiastic. Her office life consists of sucking up to the head of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) and competing with a hateful colleague (Gloria Reuben wasted in a thankless role). She hopes to be tapped to run the department she hates working in so very, very much.
But why complain about a miserable job when you have a thankless and loveless academic snob of a boyfriend who is more interested in reading Middle English aloud to himself and chuckling at jokes only he can understand than in asking you about your day? "Sometimes you make sacrifices for the person you've been living with for ten years," Portia says in listless defense of her domestic partner. When he inevitably dumps her for a smarter and prettier colleague, Portia runs to the closet to sob. We aren't exactly sure why. This guy is no catch. The film beats us, and her, over the head with the message that nothing she is fighting to hold onto is worth having.
Enter Paul Rudd as John Pressman, graduate of a different Ivy League university. He has turned his back on financial and professional advancement in order to adopt a third world orphan and run a charter (or is it a magnet?) school where the curriculum apparently consists of preparing to dig ditches for the Peace Corps and learning how to parrot barbs denigrating corporate capitalism.
When Portia accepts an invitation to speak at John's school, the film threatens for the briefest instant to break out of formula and actually be about something. The kids poke the smug and complacent guardian of the keys to the entitlement kingdom with claims that Princeton is more corporation than public institution. Portia pushes back that their best liberal intentions will not be enough to change the world without training and accreditation. We are set up for a longer and more nuanced examination about the actual value of education with competing points of view that will be played out in a personal, narrative context.
And then … nothing. Portia helps deliver a calf, slips in some cow dung, and has to take a co-ed shower. Wunderkind and self-professed autodidact Jeremiah performs a painfully bad ventriloquism act with a Rene Descartes puppet. Portia stops fighting with her mom long enough to pimp her out to a faculty member in exchange for a strong recommendation letter, because, really, what's more funny than old people having sex?
Admission isn't on the wrong side of some sort of ideological values conflict. Rather, its problem is that the cards are stacked so heavily for the eventual winning side that Portia doesn't have to grow or change to switch sides; she just has to open her eyes. I'm a big fan of marriage over cohabitation, actually. And choosing to invest in people (particularly family) over professional success is admirable. But Portia never chooses. The things she doesn't want to lose must be taken from her before she can question them herself.
In one of the film's more painful scenes, Portia visits the lavish home and grounds of John's parents, where a pair of tar-black lawn statues ideologically symbolizes the wealth and privilege he left. Apparently the representatives of the life Portia must reject cannot simply be shallow and elitist—they must also be casually racist, just in case anyone was on the fence about what choice Portia should make. The heavy-handed card stacking completely sidesteps the question of why Paul and Portia want Jeremiah to get into Princeton by hook or by crook, and what he might get out of it if he is eventually admitted.
Nor does the film allow Portia to take the smallest sliver of personal responsibility for the choices she's made. It was the poisonous brainwashing of feminist mom that tricked her into pursuing a life of perpetual misery: "You forgot one important thing on the road to self-empowerment—me!" That the film's most emotionally charged moment is an apportionment of blame rather than a positive declaration of duty, responsibility, hope, love—anything, is sorely disappointing.
The Family Corner
Admission is rated PG-13, primarily for language and sexual situations. The epithet of choice is "screw," though there is some coarser language written on a white board in a gag about how the admissions officers keep track of people's reactions to rejection. Portia calls the professional landscape a "dog eat bitch" world, and one male character is referred to as a "prick." Portia and John share a shower together, although no nudity is shown, and Portia is shown in bed with two separate men (at different times), once where it is implied that sexual intercourse has just occurred. Portia briefly attends an undergraduate party where it is implied that some drinking is occurring. Susannah tells the story of how Portia was conceived during a chance sexual encounter, and Portia walks in on her mother immediately after a one-night stand has left her house.