Admission gave me that fuzzy dramedy feeling you get from James L. Brooks films from the 80s and 90s. Brooks’ films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets and even the underrated Spanglish were all able to find that elusive sweet spot between comedy and drama.
The witty banter between smart or smartly-written characters as they attempt to explain to themselves why they are still trying so hard to stay with people they can’t stand are encapsulated in a tone that strictly stays around the middle of the comedy-tragedy spectrum, never really leaning on the side of either melodrama or broad comedy.
Judd Apatow’s more recent films Funny People and This is 40 make him look like a proud supporter of The Brooks School of Dramedy, especially when he steals some pages from his rulebook when it comes to heartfelt scenes about basic human frustrations. But when it comes to comedy, he’s a bit too much in love with his posse that includes his actual wife and children to allow the comedy to remain levelheaded. It’s usually laugh-out-loud funny, but takes us away from the proposed reality of the setting by introducing lines that could only come out of seasoned comedians.
I liked Admission as much as This is 40 for a different reason. Perhaps it doesn’t have the laugh-a-minute ratio of Apatow’s film, but it’s a well-rounded dramedy that earns every moment that naturally comes out of the character development. The resulting work does not come out of manufactured jokes and one-liners but the natural state of the characters. It’s the story that directs the mood and not the other way around.
Based on Karen Croner’s best-selling novel, Admission is about Portia (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton, one of the hardest Ivy League Universities to get into (Which one isn’t?). She’s invited to a progressive hippie school by John (Apatow favorite Paul Rudd), the school’s carefree principal, to give a lecture on Princeton admission to his free-thinking students who appear to be living inside an institution that’s equal parts academic Mecca and farming community.
When Portia’s typical holier-than-thou elitist approach regarding the impossibility of being admitted to Princeton fails in front of these junior Occupy Wall Street types, she’s forced to rethink her values in life. Things gradually become more confusing for her as John confesses to Portia the true reason behind inviting her.
Director Paul Weitz is not a stranger to light-hearted dramedies. Yes, he did helm back-to-back triple embarrassments Little Fockers, Cirque du Freak and American Dreamz, but he’s back in shape here more as the director of the beloved Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy than those failures. I’m also in the small group of people who thought In Good Company wasn’t all that bad.
We know that Tina Fey and Paul Rudd can always go wild with their two-dimensional yet funny caricatures like Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin and Rudd’s hippie from Our Idiot Brother, but this time a lot of restraint is respectfully shown from both stars in the excessive mugging for the camera department. Especially Fey’s performance of a woman who controls many young people’s lives yet cannot get a handle on her own is a rare dramatic turn by her. Her fight for a gifted yet sketchy-on-paper student’s admission is surprisingly emotional and frank from the SNL alum.
I was surprised to like Admission as much as I did. I expected a pointless cash grab, bringing together two big-name comedians into a flimsy plot just to get the audience’s money for an admission ticket (See what I did there?). But the end result managed to win me over. I’ll gladly stamp it with a Pass.