I didn’t exactly have an ideal pick and choose of films to review this week. After watching a few trailers, I decided I’ve never been attracted enough by the Beat Generation to see On The Road. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was drawing me in, mainly because Vice is a webzine I visit frequently and they seem to have some promotional pact going on with the amount of coverage they are giving this film; this might be financial, might not: Korine’s work is exactly what their hipsterish readership swallows up. But the subject matter—girls going wild on spring break in Florida, a place I have zero time for even to watch on screen for two hours much less visit ever again—was a turnoff, plus I’m just not in the mood this season for the super-saturated lurid colors in Korine’s palette. Like most Gheys, I was inclined to see it because of Our James Franco in cornrows with a grill over his teeth. But no.
Presidential hostage drama Olympus Has Fallen needs to wait—I don’t care for Antoine Fuqua, but he cares even less about me. If I’m perfectly honest, I wanted to review the animated feature The Croods, about cavemen and the Ice Age, the premise of another series of animated features I quite enjoyed.
However, I selflessly based my decision on which film I presumed our readers would want to know about, of all the wide releases this weekend. I thought in particular about our contributor Eric Baker, who lives out in the middle of the wilds near Princeton, N.J. and only gets highly commercial fare at his local theater. So the natural decision fell on Paul Weitz’s Admission, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and now I feel like a fucking martyr to my own desire to please.
Luckily, this desire is infrequent. Any time it surfaces again, I shall swat it down with the memory of having chosen a film knowing before I went in that it wasn’t just going to disappoint me, it would likely infuriate me; this sort of piece is too close to what I write and direct myself, whereas everything else on offer isn’t even on the same playing field.
I’ve pondered a great deal about what exactly is wrong with Admission, aside from being directed by the man who created American Pie, which was actually quite funny. Or I seem to remember laughing out loud, which I didn’t do once during Admission, although I did groan a couple of times. And this is despite the fact Tina Fey can make me giggle just by looking straight into the camera and saying three words as Sarah Palin. And Paul Rudd is likewise a favorite from the Judd Apatow generation—he’s just so likable, and I’m not enough of a curmudgeon yet to dislike someone for being likable. Still, Rudd is like Seth Rogen: the same person in every film: Himself. Neither actor seems to believe in acting, more in lending himself to the film as a sort of brand endorsement. To that end, I’m not sure why they bother to assign character names to these guys; they should simply be called Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen in every film. (Now that’s a meta-something Our James Franco might approve of.)
My pondering has led me to the conclusion that it’s the very person who will draw audiences to see this, Tina Fey, who is wrong for the role. That and direction so bland and lacking in inventiveness they wouldn’t accept this on premium cable these days; they’d make them rewrite, reshoot, and tell them to take some goddamned risks, already.
Fey cannot keep a straight face because she doesn’t have one; she seems perpetually on the point of laughter. And that’s the film’s main problem because this isn’t a light comedy, much less a broad one like American Pie. It’s a dramedy replete with—gulp!—what appear to be Shakespearean pretensions in the form of the name of Fey’s character, Portia, the Elizabethan rom-com dynamics, and a wobbly plot device of the kind the Bard delighted in: The uncertain parentage of a special child.
The story centers around Portia, a prim, Bonzai tree-pruning admissions officer at Princeton, and her color-by-numbers relationship with John Pressman (Rudd), the director of one of those Northeastern progressive schools I always think I ought to have attended, until I remind myself that Trinity, from where I graduated, is located in that most progressive and cosmopolitan of cities, Manhattan, I had at least three hours of theater class every day, so I don’t know how much more progressive I expect any institution to be that still manages to get the majority of its students into schools like Princeton. Once I reached my own majority age-wise, I made my early decision, dropped out of Wesleyan and have been as progressive as I please ever since. I don’t regret it because, as Admissions points out a few times, I knew intuitively from an early age that the system those schools are designed to support was not one I would ever be involved with directly, therefore the money was wasted on me, and my seat better vacated for someone who actually wanted to be there.
Also, like the special child in this film, Jeremiah (Nat Wolf), I am an autodidact; I will learn eventually, and it often takes me decades longer than other people for the most rudimentary things, but I must learn my way or not at all. So you would think the subject of being self-taught would appeal to me, that I would buy in and identify, but instead all I did was regret I hadn’t bought that popcorn because I’d forgotten to have dinner.
Yes, distracted I was.
Another subtheme of Admission is modern feminism, represented by the intergenerational strife between Portia and her mother, played by Lily Tomlin, a hard-ass, old-school woman warrior who doesn’t believe in romantic attachments, has a Bella Abzug tattoo on her right shoulder, assembles her own bicycle and keeps two massive hounds she doesn’t feed because they should be out in the woods hunting their own sustenance. Portia is expected to be the woman who can have it all that women like her mother fought for. Instead, theirs epitomizes the worst of modern American family relationships, particularly those between my generation and our parents’. To wit, during their first scene together, Portia remarks that her mother’s boobs are so much bigger. Without even looking at her daughter or taking her attention away from the bike she is putting together, the mother explains that during a routine check-up they found a malign tumor, so she decided to have both breasts removed, but never told her daughter. It’s all dismissed as casually as if the mother had a bad case of split ends and decided to stop dying her hair and get a bob.
How very real-life Nora Ephron, and yet how utterly unbelievable.
Combine the above with an examination of the anxieties and realities of the admission process, which only appear to have gotten worse since I was a teen, and of an America still ruled by the graduates of elite Northeastern establishments (I need to take more time to ponder why I am relieved by that—it disturbs me that I haven’t killed my inner snob yet), and what you have is, in theory, the recipe for a fantastic, layered drama speckled with moments of wry comedy that arise naturally from the dynamics and situations. But that soufflé don’t ever rise in Admission.
Again, Weitz and his writer, Karen Corner, should have relied on the realism of their subject and sub-themes to let the drama emerge organically. Instead, right from the get-go you have this forced Hollywood plastic-toy break-up scene when Portia’s boyfriend leaves her for a Virginia Woolf scholar who is pregnant with twins he fathered. In true Hollywood formula fashion, this lame gag is brought out to play as punctuation for sequences throughout the remainder of the film, with absolutely no resolution or relevance to the core of the story. True, it does reference the all-too-common bed-swapping relationships that are rife among academia, but they are performed and directed as those clownish characters that are, frankly, the most distracting part of Shakespeare’s comedies.
The irony of ironies is that Admission is like a candidate for an elite school who had so much potential on paper, but just doesn’t qualify in the execution, and that is why it should be rejected.
Don’t see this. Do not support safe cookie-cutter Hollywood pablum any more than you would support the just-as-out-of-touch Republicans; it’s not good for them, much less the nation. Watch it on Netflix when you’ve exhausted every other possibility. Then stream Curtis Hanson’s far superior film about academia, Wonder Boys, starring Robert Downey Jr. during a time he was still willing to be somewhat honest about his sexuality. Sadly, if you’re looking for an outing this weekend, apparently you should see Olympus Has Fallen.