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Entries in Admission [2013] (1)

Friday
Mar292013

Admission (2013)

Intro to Mixed Signals

This happens at least once a month: while waiting in line at the multiplex, I see someone scanning the lobby marquee in confusion, trying to decide what movie they should see. Some even hold up the line for minutes on end, insisting the box office attendant describe their options and make recommendations, like some minimum-wage wine steward. Think about that: this person got out of bed, showered (maybe), and drove to a theatre with no idea as to how they'd like to fill their brain for two-plus hours. For them, movies are like fast food: "French fries or curly fries? Rom-com or shoot-'em-up? Hmmmmmm..."

The long and short of it is, maybe I've been too harsh on those who create movie trailers (and on the studios that approve their work). The marketplace is so oversaturated with content that guaranteeing a hit no longer means roping in the star or director's hardest of hard-core fans. These editing wizards must also guarantee a generically palatable enough experience to let the lobby zombies know they won't find a chicken patty in their Big Mac; not an easy job, to be sure.

Case in point: I got dragged to Paul Weitz's Admission by my wife, who may be the world's biggest Paul Rudd fan. I like Rudd quite a bit, as well as his co-star here, Tina Fey--but both have dodgy track records, and the trailer for their latest wasn't encouraging. Packed with lame jokes and outlining every major story beat, there's nothing in that two-and-a-half minutes to suggest a big-screen experience (or even a little screen one).

Yes, most of the content from the commercial actually made it into the movie. But Admission is much more than a comedy about over-worked Princeton admissions officer/Cathy cartoon Portia Nathan (Fey) who falls in love with laid-back alternative-school teacher John Pressman (Rudd), while also reconnecting with her long-lost son, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). In fact, it's only a comedy in the sense that odd moments of vapidity are inserted into scenes of really interesting relationship drama--possibly at the behest of the studio, who needed some catchy material for the trailer.

In adapting Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel, screenwriter Karen Croner faced the daunting task of making her three main characters cinematic, instead of just letting them relate to each other in the natural, grounded way in which I'd like to believe they were conceived. It's quite enough that Portia begins the film in a failing relationship with an aloof professor (Michael Sheen), but he keeps popping back up in bizarre guilty-scoundrel cameos that add nothing to the proceedings--including laughs. Likewise, Lily Tomlin is terrific as Portia's caustic, hyper-feminist mother, but only in the few moments when she's not forced to be parody of hyper-feminists and caustic mothers.

If you can look past the cow labor bit and the clumsily telegraphed truth about Portia and Jeremiah's relationship, you may find a movie that you can slip into as easily as your favorite sweater. Admission is not the most glamorous or sexy thing out there, but it's reassuring and oddly proud of its own normalcy.

Where people may get confused is in the casting. Fey is great in her role, but audiences see her as a comedienne first and an actress second. The Portia character isn't an awkward frump like 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, nor is she the cold, confident careerist-type Katherine Heigl has played in most all of her films.

She's an approaching-middle-age professional whose idea of a great life is establishing a balance between work and home. For those of us in the trenches of this epic struggle every day, that's material enough for a blockbuster trilogy--but to people seeking wish-fulfillment in their rom-coms and dramadies, we must, of course, endure cheating boyfriends, bogus competitions in the workplace, and the sensitive-guy hotness of America's knight in flannel armor, Paul Rudd.

Like Tomlin, Rudd fares best when he's not forced to make witty banter in a co-ed shower or disguise his embarrassment at his wealthy upbringing. In his interactions with his adopted son, Nelson (Travaris Spears), we see a man who wants to make the world a better place for disadvantaged children, but whose own insecurities as a single dad wind up holding his kid back in unexpected ways. That could also be a great stand-alone plot, instead of a B- to C-level side story. But throughout the film, I could hear echoes of executives screaming, "Get that asshole professor guy back in here! Have him ride a bicycle and say something smarmy in that evil Brit accent of his! We need laughs, dammit!"

So what does one do with a movie that has lots to say about the human condition, higher education, and the bizarre emotional gauntlet of parenthood? If it's not consistently heavy enough to be a drama or funny enough to be a comedy, I guess the solution is to sell it as a wacky love picture and dump it in late March.

It's a bold move, but a smart one: very few lobby zombies will be motivated enough by the lack of belly laughs to leave early and demand a refund. Besides, what do they care? They'll forget Admission by next weekend, anyway. But I won't.