Liz Lemon goes to college? Not really. “Admission” is a blandly pleasant comedy about one of the least pleasant rites of passage in modern America: the scramble to get into an institute of higher education. It stars Tina Fey as a more cultivated, less hapless version of her “30 Rock” persona, a Princeton admissions officer named Portia Nathan. Like Liz, she’s not married to anything except her job, and, like Liz, she’s regularly cowed by a brazen superior being, in this case her mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), a fearsome second-wave feminist who lives off the grid in rural New Hampshire.
By contrast, Portia excels at quashing the expectations of Princeton applicants and their thoroughly obnoxious parents. “Admission” is based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and the best parts of the movie — there aren’t enough of them — examine the soul-killing contortions the average high school kid undergoes to present the most stellar version of him or herself. This version, manufactured in college essays and lists of after-school activities, in multiple languages spoken and internships checked off, may have little to do with who the student actually is, and, anyway, how is anyone supposed to choose from thousands of shiny, equally accomplished prodigies? “Just be yourself,” Portia tells them, a bit of useful advice that fools no one.
(In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that your critic has a high school senior whose own envelopes will be arriving in a few weeks, as well as a close relative in the business. This either makes me the best person to review “Admission” or the worst.)
The movie has an interestingly crusty surface and a center that’s soft and formulaic; not surprisingly, the director is Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”), a good filmmaker with a sentimental streak. Portia is approached by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), director of a hippie-dippy farm school in New Hampshire; he wants her to consider some of his kids and he especially wants her to consider an eccentric boy wonder named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who — spoiler alert — is revealed early on to possibly be the son Portia gave up for adoption in college.
Factor in a burgeoning romance with John, the breakup of her longstanding relationship with a tweedy English professor (Michael Sheen, doing amusingly passive-aggressive things behind a tenured beard), the various politics of the Princeton admissions department (Gloria Reuben plays Portia’s smoothly smiling rival while Wallace Shawn is the outgoing head), plus the heroine’s struggles with her pill of a mother while trying to get to know her son without him figuring out he is her son, and “Admissions” has to be either a delirious farce or a complete train wreck.
Surprisingly, it’s neither, but neither is it a great movie. Fairly good will have to do (which in any event is better than “Baby Mama” or “Date Night,” Fey’s most high-profile film ventures to date). The scenes with Rudd are enjoyably awkward — John has his own commitment issues to work out, not to mention an adopted Rwandan son (Travaris Spears) that the script stops just short of presenting as the Magical Black Child beloved by Hollywood movies. A party at the home of John’s mother (Tina Benko), a WASP doyenne with a smile like a bear trap, is the only time the film comes close to examining matters of class, which isn’t nearly close enough.
Fey seems relieved to dial down the sitcom wackiness and play something approximating a normal person, and there are unexpected grace notes to her performance, especially in the scenes with Tomlin. Yet “Admission” is being billed as a romantic comedy, and that seems odd given how much sadness and disappointment hover in the background. Portia’s is the barely acknowledged tragedy of an unexceptional woman with a parent and a career that insist on exceptionality every step of the way. Even more flippantly, each Princeton applicant that Portia considers visually materializes before us with youthful pride before disappearing down a chute in the floor, doubtless to — heaven forbid — a state school.
You’re right, I am taking this too seriously; see parenthetical note above. That still doesn’t change the fact that “Admission” is cheerful, skittish entertainment that never takes its subject seriously enough.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.