Many comic film actors specialize in larger-than-life characters. Tina Fey has made her mark in roles that are agreeably human-scaled.
In “Admission,” she’s well cast as buttoned-up, overachieving college admissions officer Portia Nathan. She guards the entrance to notoriously choosy Princeton University, firmly and politely informing 99 percent of applicants that they don’t measure up. Since she holds herself to equally strict standards, when her life goes off the rails, she loses it — big time. But she freaks like a stressed-out control queen, not a berserk comedian grasping for laughs.
Portia’s life is a mix of small victories (she’s in the running to replace department head Wallace Shawn following his retirement next year) and petty disappointments (her academic boyfriend, Michael Sheen, treats her with the same affection he would show a fine golden retriever). While Portia’s routine is usually as meticulous as her office bonsai, she finds her life capsizing through a quadruple whammy. There’s backstabbery from her smiling-shark office rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben). Infidelity threatens the domestic front. John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the nonconformist do-gooder heading a crunchy-granola alternative high school, makes sincere but rabidly unprofessional overtures. And most crucially, Portia discovers a relationship to ultra-smart, uber-awkward applicant Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) jeopardizing her reputation for strict impartiality.
The story follows the narrative beats expected of a romantic comedy. After all, when your stars are as innately likable as Rudd and Fey, it would feel like a mistake not to bring them together. Their courtship isn’t the central thread, though. Portia, named for the wisest of Shakespeare’s females, finds herself in a serious ethical quandary as she pulls strings to advance Jeremiah through the admissions process. Confronting her own fallibility is one of the admissions she must make as she re-evaluates her personal and professional lives.
While most college-themed comedies aim for low-SAT yucks, “Admission” tosses out jokes and cultural references that aim higher. Director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) has a fine track record with this sort of lightweight but smarter-than-average fare. Lily Tomlin sparkles as Portia’s mother, an old-guard feminist who warns her daughter against longstanding entanglements with men. After her character has been established, we notice that she has a shoulder tattoo of Bella Abzug. There are plenty of details like that, tossed in just to tickle whoever notices. The laughs here are mostly honest, rarely forced, and triggered by our identification with misguided folks, this one overcompensating through workaholism, that one through wanderlust, and that one through political pontificating.
Likable as Fey and Rudd are, their performances don’t break any major new ground. The acting honors go to a trio of winning supporting players. Sheen is blisteringly funny as Portia’s tweedy boyfriend, eyes wild with fear that she will trip over evidence of his indiscretions. Reuben, so strong and noble as the First Lady’s maid in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” is exquisitely disingenuous as the office predator with her eye firmly on the Dean of Admissions slot. And Shawn is perfect as the outgoing boss, a sincere but gnomelike product of a privileged class whose defense of hallowed intellectual traditions is a grown-up game of eenie-meenie-miney-moe. Top marks all around.