Sunday, March 24, 2013

Extracurricular Applications: ADMISSION

Admission is an agreeable diversion. It’s a mellow college comedy set not amongst the students, but among the employees. Specifically, as the title may have revealed for you, it’s set in the admissions department. Our protagonist is Portia, who has been reading Princeton’s college applications and their attendant essays for sixteen years now. Played by Tina Fey, reason enough to like her immediately, she’s a hard-worker firmly settled into her comfortable and predictable life. She’s in a long-term relationship with a tenured English professor (Michael Sheen, in another one of his uncannily convincing embodiments of insufferable academics), a man who clearly takes her for granted. He’s dismissive and only vaguely affectionate towards her. It’s one of those movie relationships that’s obviously doomed from the get go. The story that follows involves Portia’s slow realization that the life she’s living is not the one that will make her happy.

Enter Paul Rudd, playing the principal of an experimental high school who invites her to visit their campus and give her usual spiel about applying for Princeton. He’s taken a special interest in a gifted student with a rocky transcript (Nat Wolff) and wants to make sure she notices and gives this underdog a chance. It goes against all the rules, but in the movie’s totally soft and unemphatic way, it forms a minor critique of the college admissions process as one that is, in some cases, designed to weed out the more unconventionally promising candidates. But that’s on the film’s thematic back burner, since what it’s really interested in is showing us that the admissions Portia most needs to make are to herself. It’s a low-key movie of self-discovery, personal growth, and slow evolution of relationship statuses. Admirably serious about its setting in academia, an unconventional setting and approach for Hollywood films of any kind, it’s a film that’s nonetheless so low-key that I was almost afraid that movie itself was going to fall asleep right before my very eyes.

That it doesn’t is a testament to the charms of the cast which, Fey and Rudd aside, features lovely small-scale character work from national treasures like Lily Tomlin (as Fey’s proudly liberal mother) and Wallace Shawn (as the head of the admissions department). Director Paul Weitz (working in a mode much closer to his About a Boy than his American Pie or, God forbid, Little Fockers) and screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) keep things moving along cleanly and clearly with a gentle tug of narrative to push the emotions along in easy and relaxed ways. It’s sometimes funny, but in an off-hand way rather than through any conventional zingers. It’s sometimes romantic, but in such a wispy way that it almost registers after-the-fact. It’s sometimes pointed in explicit summoning of sociopolitical concerns and cultural studies, but only in the softest possible ways. I found myself smiling and soothed, if not exactly captivated and entertained.

A tidy embrace of open-endedness and a polite salute to mildly bad decisions snowballing into big life changes for the better, Admission ends up in a sweet, tender place as an appealingly minor work. Never once does the movie insist upon its own worth. Nor does it reach for anything more than its deliberate slightness. It’s merely a pleasant time with pleasant characters played pleasantly. It’s the kind of entertainment I’d imagine would play just as well, if not better, when viewed on cable TV while curled up on the couch some lazy wintry weekend when a combination of coziness and the common cold demand a just-complicated-enough piece of comfort. 

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