Paul Weitz's resume doesn't read like he would be the perfect choice to direct a film with winning comedy stars as Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Weitz may have launched his career with the teen sex romp American Pie, but he's shown a proclivity for human dramedy of a more profound nature. Films like About a Boy, In Good Company, and Being Flynn have their share of laughs but reach for something emotionally resonant. Admission is another attempt to straddle that divide, and while it mostly gets the balance just right, what really makes it work are the natural charms of the two leads.
Fey plays Portia Nathan, a hurried Princeton admissions officer whose career is her life. Too good at her job and too smart for her own good, she's a walking mid-life crisis spaz not unlike 30 Rock's Liz Lemon. Her all-too structured existence is populated by her snooty English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen), who claims to love their quiet, simple life without kids or restrictions. As the guard dog to the gates of Ivy League exceptionalism, where hardly anyone is good enough to qualify, Portia is bred to be judgmental, even if self-reflection eludes her.
As the admission season warms up, Portia's life is thrown into upheaval from multiple directions. The Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is retiring; leaving a job open she desperately wants but must compete with a bossy rival for. Her boyfriend ups and leaves her for a woman they used to make fun of. But the most personal hurdle is placed in front of her with the arrival of the impulsive and quick-witted John (Rudd), the founder of an alternative school that breeds the sort of free-thinkers Princeton claims to need but doesn't truly want. Introducing her to the eccentric Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) who he thinks is a potential prodigy, he also casually drops the bombshell that the boy could be Portia's son, given up for adoption at a young age. Her world unraveling, she turns to her firecracker, feminist mother (Lily Tomlin), who has a long history of putting her own needs well ahead of her daughter's.
Portia's abandonment issues and fraught romantic entanglements form the bulk of the conflict and the humor, neither of which heats up to anything significant but stays at a steady simmer throughout. The jokes are smart and focused, tearing down the elitist establishment of power schools that seem to be more concerned with their recruitment ranking than the actual recruits. Only occasionally does the film venture into more ditzy territory, and when it does it fails miserably. Jeremiah puts on an embarrassing ventriloquist act that should warrant him a seat at the Dinner for Schmucks.
The film works best when it stays firmly grounded in reality. Portia and John's drawn out "meet cute" only works because of the charms of the two actors, who come from the same school of character-driven comedy. At the same time, the stakes never seem all that high, even as Portia considers giving Jeremiah an unfair helping hand into Princeton. Satisfying yet weightless, Admission won't make it to the head of the class, but is still deserving of a passing grade.