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1.625 Cheers for "Admission"
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April 03, 2013, 05:00 PM
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`1.625The basic problem with "Admission" is that Tina Fey isn`t funny in her role as a staffer at Princeton`s Admissions department. Otherwise, it`s a pretty intelligent movie on an interesting subject. But, it`s not very funny.

Now, for reasons that are no doubt explicated at some length in the roughly 13,000 articles I haven`t read all the way through to the end about why the career of Tina Fey is of epochal importance for the social evolution of the world, many seem to feel they, personally, have a lot invested in her. Me, I just like her when she`s funny and don`t otherwise think about her lot.

So, the opening of "Admission" requires Fey to do a lot of voice-over explaining the elite college admissions process from the inside, the overly polished kids, the insufferably pushy parents, the cliches about "Just be yourself," and so forth.

A lot of decent movies founder on this kind of introductory expository voice-over, which is hard to get right in tone. Blade Runner is a notorious instance. For example, if you ever want to see a fine Bonfire of the Vanities-lite satirical movie about Miami, check out Big Trouble based on Dave Barry`s novel, which has a much better selected cast than the movie version of Bonfire. But, Tim Allen airballs a few jokes in the introductory voiceover, and a lot of people wrote it off then and there without noticing that it keeps getting better and better.

It`s particularly hard to get the tone right in Admission because the natural emotional response to elite college admissions would be, oh, say, Dr. Strangelove-style satire. But, "Admission" won`t let the system have it with both barrels. When it does engage in satire, however, I was impressed with the accuracy (the SAT scores and GPAs of the applicants are exactly right), and with some subtle subversiveness.

For example, Admission revolves on the fate of a diamond-in-the-rough applicant with a 1.5 GPA after three years of public high school in a hick town in New Hampshire where his parents run a mini-mart. But, the first teacher (played by Paul Rudd) smart enough to understand what Jeremiah`s talking about realizes his student is an autodidact, so he has him sign up for 8 Advanced Placement tests, even though he`s never taken an AP course. Jeremiah gets 5s on all 8. (I`m a big fan of AP tests being incorporated more into the application process than they are at present, since if kids are going to test prep like crazy, they might as well test prep on real subjects like chemistry and European history.)

Jeremiah then takes the SAT and scores a 2360 out 2400.

And Jeremiah is white and working class. In fact, Paul Rudd does some sleuthing and decides that his young prodigy must be the child Tina Fey secretly gave up for adoption when they were at Dartmouth together.

Tina is unmarried and childless, having lived with the insufferable head of the Princeton English Department (Michael Sheen, who usually plays Tony Blair) for ten years until he dumped her for the department`s new Virginia Woolf superstar.

The point of being an admissions "officer" is that although you don`t get paid all that much, you have huge amounts of travel to do, and the faculty don`t respect you, you have Power. You get to reward kids who remind you of yourself. (As long, of course, as they are budding young sociopaths who are willing to sacrifice all shreds of dignity — "Write an application essay about my mother`s excruciating death from cancer? Why that`s a great idea!" — to fit into and get ahead in the System.)

For example, the aging preppie admissions staffer really wants to push the legacy applicant who is captain of the high school sailing team (how many schools have sailing teams?) but "doesn`t test well." (A braver movie would have also shown the gay staffer pushing all the gay boy applicants.)

But, having spent 16 years in this job and having her usual self-esteem issues, the thrill of boosting Mini-Mes who seem like you but are really Other People`s Children has lost its thrill.

Tina`s character can`t stand all the manipulative parents she has to fend off, but "Admission" raises the question of just how far she would go to get her own kid (assuming Jeremiah really is her baby) into Princeton?

Pretty damn far, it turns out.

Periodically, I read articles about how we don`t have to worry about affirmative action in the long run because Real Soon Now, black parents will all decide that their kids getting special breaks just isn`t fair, so they will demand the end of racial quotas. Yeah, right ...

Other clever aspects: the Paul Rudd character is a globe-trotting do-gooder who moves every few years to some new Third World poverty zone to teach the locals how to dig ditches or whatever NGOs do. Rudd`s character hates being thought boring. Along the way, he has adopted an Ugandan boy who is now in 6th grade at the New England alternative school where Rudd teaches.

The little black boy is the movie`s wise Numinous Negro, but he`s used with a twist. Rudd expects him to be a whiz at schoolwork, but he`s not. Why isn`t he getting As in Spanish? After all, they`ve been back home in New England for two years and it`s time to head off to the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador to heal the world. But Rudd`s adopted son is sick of traveling, sick of the Third World, and likes playing bridge with Rudd`s rich Republican mother. The Ugandan kid wants Rudd to marry Fey because Fey is boring and he`s sick of Rudd wanting to be interesting all the time.

Director Paul Weitz (who co-directed with his brother Chris Weitz the definitive Hugh Grant performance in the similar About a Boy in 2002) is the son of John Weitz, fashion designer, race car driver, novelist, historian, and spy, a definite candidate for Most Interestin Man in the World, mid-Century version.