In one of the funnier moments in Admission, several Princeton admissions officers make notes on a giant chart. On one side are fawning remarks they've received from parents whose offspring have just been accepted to the Ivy League. "You're an angel on earth," reads one. On the other side are insults from parents of rejected applicants. Admissions officer Portia (Tina Fey) approaches the board with a comment she's just received. "I hope you get rectal cancer," she scrawls.
Paul Weitz's lukewarm dramedy, though, prompts neither rapture nor wrath. It takes a subject, the neurotic frenzy of college admissions, that could be played seriously or for laughs, and lands in an erratic middle. Fey is an uptight admissions officer who receives a phone call from a former classmate named John (Paul Rudd), who runs an alternative school where students learn to build sustainable irrigation systems, assist cows in labor and generally fight the man. There she meets Jeremiah (Nat Wolff, in the film's most sincere performance), a genius autodidact with ghastly grades. When John tells Portia that Jeremiah might be the son she gave up for adoption during college, her life goes into a tailspin.
Fey plays Portia as a neat-freak Liz Lemon, a screwball with an office she keeps scrupulously clean and a bonsai she obsessively trims. But she's still a klutz who babbles before thinking and makes ethical compromises both small (crashing a college party to check on Jeremiah) and large (interfering with Jeremiah's Princeton application). In an overstuffed subplot, Portia's sheepish poetry-professor partner (Michael Sheen) leaves her for a Virginia Woolf scholar he's already impregnated. Three cheers for academia.
Rudd, while not as endearing as Fey, does his usual deadpan act, but the screenplay is too tepid to generate any real laughs. The most charming performance comes from Lily Tomlin as Portia's freewheeling feminist mother, who quotes Erica Jong and boasts a Bella Abzug tattoo on her biceps. When she's onscreen Admission begins to stoke an anti-conformist fire.
Even as the film pokes elitist Ivies in the eye, it asks viewers to root for an underdog who seeks acceptance to one such institution. Sorry, Admission: After review of your application, we have voted to place your name on our waitlist.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: Admission is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Division, Pioneer Place, Tigard.